Category Archives: Cheese

Holiday in Fukushima: Drift, baby, drift

When hunting for destinations for a holiday in Fukushima, I reached not for a Rough Guide or a Lonely Planet (my 1994 edition of which anyway devotes just a couple of its eight hundred pages to the delights of the prefecture) but for an altogether more outré publication, Kyoichi Tsuzuki’s 1998 bilingual bestiary of the bizarre, Roadside Japan, described by the author himself as “a heaping helping of crass, dumb, and vile nonsense”, a book that celebrates every stupendous banality of modern existence, from the idle menace of swan pedalos to the tragicomic absurdity of abandoned restaurants capped with giant concrete Buddhas, and which has served as a wellspring of inspiration these last few years. What did Doctor Tsuzuki prescribe for Fukushima? Only three sites, as it turned out—Godzilla’s egg (which we’ll come to later), the treasures of the ogre hag of Adachigahara (which sadly we won’t), and Tohoku Safari Park, which on first blush sounded unpromising:

You can nose your Honda as close as you dare to a yawning lion, feed giraffes from your car window, get bison slobber all over your windshield, it’s a thrill a minute here!

Yes, been there, done that, remain in therapy from the assault of a troupe of chimps on the vinyl roof (well, it was the seventies) of our slice of ripped-off bargain-basement Detroit iron at a certain British safari park when I was six, something I am still subtly paying for in the shape of an ever so slightly diminished inheritance. No bison was going to slobber all over my Honda’s windshield, thank you very much. But Tsuzuki mentions in passing that the park had an “Erotica House—something for the kiddies and something for the grown-ups”, and this called for further investigation.

No trace of the Erotica House was to be found at the website of the safari park—my, how prudish we have grown in our dotage, Japan—and it turns out that in 2006 the president of the park, Tokio Kumakubo, then aged 74, briefly ended up in the clinker for displaying pornographic photos of un-mosaicked couplings in his Erotica House. This wasn’t Kumakubo’s first brush with the law: back in the sixties he had become one of the largest real estate brokers in Tohoku but his operations fell apart in 1973 when he was suspected of tax evasion. Somehow he navigated his way through bankruptcy while holding on to large tracts of land, on which he built a couple of successful safari parks, and was reputed at one time to own a hundred racehorses.

In the course of unearthing all this, I learned that Kubota had indulged his son, Nobushige (41), by building him a network of motor-racing tracks, Ebisu Circuit, on lower hillside land to the east of Tohoku Safari Park, that these circuits were regarded as the spiritual home of that made-in-Japan motorsport, drift racing, that Nobushige was a pro drift racer and the Lord of Ebisu, where he is known as “The Controller”, and that the weekend I would be in town the circuit was scheduled to hold a Drift Matsuri festival. Sold!

 

Pulling up in front of the safari park entrance, it was instantly apparent that something was awry.

 

Although it should have been one of the holidaymaking peaks of the year, the ghastly seventies hulk of the Safari Hotel had been crudely mothballed, a stub of two by four jammed down behind the round handles of its glass reception doors.

Mold was creeping up the long-closed shutters of a used tire vendor.

 

Across the road was a spartan dosshouse nap room, bedding heaped in corners, available free of charge to circiut drivers too impecunious or obsessed to pay for accommodation.

At the admission gate I forked over a very reasonable Y1,500 ($20) spectator fee, for which I was rewarded with a complementary pair of black driver’s gloves emblazoned with “Drift Tengoku” (Drift Heaven) in pink—drift is nothing if not colorful—and a sheaf of bilingual maps, guides, and warnings, the sternest admonition being a chillingly ultimate disclaimer of responsibility: “No matter what happens (for example, death, wound, damage) during Drift Heaven Week, we can’t take responsibility or be liable for anything”.

Roars, screeches, and bellows, not of the lions, bears, and tigers of the safari park but rather of the Soarers, the Chasers, and the other big beasts of drift, drew me in.

Someone—I forget who—once wrote that you could live in Japan a long time before realizing that the head of state was the emperor. I’m not sure that’s true, but you could certainly live out your life in Japan—even as a Japanese—without being aware that the subculture of drift-racing existed, never see it on the nightly news (broadcasts are relegated to an obscure satellite channel), never read of it in the daily papers, never hear of it in morning coffee conversations with coworkers. That’s I think because it has its (eighties) roots in highly illegal touge mountain-pass racing on public highways and is hence condemned to be forever part of the ura, the hidden Janus face of society, rather than the omote face presented to the world, no matter how much it has been made respectable and spread around the globe in recent years.

Nothing quite prepares the drift novitiate for the unearthly banshee wails and tortured turbo whinnies of a drift car driven at the limit, and within moments I was hooked. Drift struck me immediately as everything modern omote Japan so fastidiously tries not to be: stinky, grimy, raucous, unrefined, unfettered, and very definitely high-testosterone—no soshokukei herbivore men need apply here. And as Jeremy Clarkson, presenter of the BBC carlife show Top Gear, might say, I absolutely bloody love it. This well-watched video, Ebisu: The Soul of Drift, captures the poetic, almost balletic, rhythms and cadences of drift far better than any still photo could.

And yet, for someone primed like me to look for signs of trouble, they were everywhere. The pit blocks were at best half-full of wannabe racers. What cars there were, were of a certain vintage, like this R32 Skyline from the distant early nineties, easily tuneable rear-wheel drive monsters of power that the Japanese auto industry doesn’t much deign to churn out any more.

The merest handful of spectators, including this couple out on a date (at whose instigation, I wonder), were scattered across the creaking, peeling stands.

The circuit’s maintenance and support vehicles were without exception of extreme antiquity. An old woman loitered at the door of her customerless restauant, watching the action. The VIP room had been furnished with worn and lumpy sofas that might have been yanked off the street in the glorious sodai gomi days of yore, when people junked their almost new yet already unwanted furniture by the roadside. Could it be possible, I mused: in the land of its birth, was drift adrift?

Much to my surprise, a knot of foreigners were lounging around the pit walls. I approached one, a US Air Force dude who’d driven down from the Misawa Air Base in far northern Aomori and who’d missed the last festival because of a tour of duty in Iraq. He’d been here four days and nights straight—no time to sleep, he said—but had smacked into a wall and done some damage to his ride, which is why, at the chaotic lower echelons of drift, bruised is best.

“The great thing about drift, man, is you get to mix with the pros, people like Naoto Suenaga.”

“It’s not like NASCAR and Dale Earnhardt Junior, ya know.”

I assured him I was sure it wasn’t.

After a couple of entertaining hours, I wended my happy way north, but was left with a headful of nagging questions. Was drift one of the holy places where the races meet? It seemed so, from the conviviality with which pro Suenaga chatted with his foreign admirers. Was drift in peril in its homeland? So hard to tell, what with the circuit only about 65km west-northwest of Fukushima Daiichi and the dislocation and disorientation of the March 11 disasters so fresh. Or was drift only ever a minority passion? And why was I so smitten?

I vowed to return to Ebisu Circuit in August, when it hosted rounds six and seven of the D1 Grand Prix professional drifting series, and in the meantime mugged up a little on the history of drift, which I’ll recount here first through half-a-dozen key words.

Hashiriya (走り屋, hooners): Drifters that once upon a time raced illegally over mountain passes or in wharfside warehouse districts. The originators of drift, hashiriya at first raced on grip principles until a quiet drift boom built up in the mid-eighties. Street drifting as practiced by the hashiriya peaked in the mid-nineties and went into decline as drift moved, not without police pressure, onto circuits and into the world of omote.

Broadly defined, my online Japanese drift lexicon tells me, hashiriya includes a subtribe, the “maximum speedsters” (最高速系, saikosokukei), who liked to race on Tokyo’s extraordinary network of elevated expressways and who themselves could be divided into sects: the “bayshore kids” (湾岸系, wangankei), who preferred the flatter, straighter Tokyo Bay expressways and the “roulette tribes” (ルーレット族, roulettezoku), who preferred the central elevated ring road. One rouletteer cheekily quipped to a TV reporter full of omote outrage in a late nineties newsclip I unearthed that the Tokyo expressways are like a racing circuit with a Y700 admission fee—which is exactly why they have featured in so many a video game. 

These subtribes are not to be confused with a bewildering assortment of other mostly dormant or extinct speedster sects from bygone eras, many two-wheeled: the “thunder tribes” (カミナリ族, kaminarizoku), the “Mach tribes” (マッハ族, Machzoku), and the “thriller tribes” (スリラー族 thrillerzoku), bikers of the sixties who gathered spontaneously in parks and plazas, the din of their exhausts, mufflers removed for enhanced performance, reminiscent of rolling thunder; the “circuit tribes” (サーキット族, circuitzoku) and the “750 tribes” (ナナハン族, nanahanzoku), Saturday night station-front racers of beefy Honda 750 bikes who were mostly tolerated by the police, even on occasion trained in safe riding skills by them; the notorious “violent running tribes” (暴走族, bosozoku) biker delinquents of the eighties, keener on brawling and militarist paraphernalia than racing; and the “rolling tribes” (ローリング族、rollingzoku) of the eighties and nineties, who aped the style of pro superbike racers, tore over mountain roads in the depths of night, and died in droves on corners and off cliffs.

Dorikin (ドリキン, drift king) – The nickname of the man widely credited as the godfather of drift, Keiichi Tsuchiya (55), who first rose to fame for his drifting techniques and six straight victories in the 1984 Fuji Speedway freshman races and who briefly in 1987 lost his Japan Automobile Federation racing license for a hair-raising video, The Touge

filmed on the treacherous and now bypassed old road over the Usui Pass between Nagano and Gunma prefectures—all this in a country where it is a reputedly a crime to leave tire marks on the white lines on the road. Also known as the “drift dude” (ドリフト野郎, drift yaro), Tsuchiya is these days the retired elder statesman of drift.

Dorisha (ドリ車, drift car) – This is what you drift in, your wheels, your ride—better get yourself a fly one. A portmanteau word combining the first two of the four Japanese syllables in “drift” and the pseudo-Chinese reading of “car”.

Hachiroku (ハチロク, eighty six) – The Toyota Levin/Trueno Sprinter AE86 featured in The Touge video above. Known affectionately as the “the little hachi that could”, the AE86 was the first great drift car and is still widely adored and drifted today, even though production ended in 1987. Slumming it in the Tokyo ’burbs in the late nineties, I often wondered why these dowdy and already dated coupes were going for anywhere from $15,000 to $30,000 at the second-hand dealers—guess I know now.   

D1 machine (D1マシン) – At the far end of the spectrum from the (originally) cheap, cheerful, lightweight and modestly powered hachiroku, these are the mean machines that duke it out in D1. We’ll encounter some later.

A series of landmarks punctuated the gradual emergence of drift from the shadowy ura valleys to the sunlit omote uplands. In 1995, Initial D, a manga about young hashiriya, started serialization in Weekly Young magazine, spawning an anime of the same name that ran intermittently from 1998-2006, (mostly shown when hoon-fearing folk were safely tucked up in bed—27:20 to 27:50 in one case on the magnificent only-in-Japan 48-hour clock), and a 2005 Hong Kong movie. In 1997, a monthly magazine in praise of all things drift, Drift Tengoku, began publication. In October 2000, the first races in the All Japan Professional Drift Championship, which would soon morph into D1, were held at Ebisu Circuit. By now, drift was going global: Formula Drift started in the US in 2004 and the first Red Bull Drifting World Championship was held in 2008.

Hollywood at long last sat up and took lucrative notice of the drift explosion in 2006, with the third in the Fast and the Furious film franchise, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, a fine example of a favorite subgenre, so-bad-they’re-good films (ostensibly) about Japan. Here’s a blurry fanboy video montage, music courtesy of the Teriyaki Boyz:

I wonder if you know
How they live in Tokyo
If you see me then you mean it
Then you know you have to go
Fast and furious (drift, drift, drift)
Fast and furious (drift, drift, drift)

I wonder if you know, how they live in Tokyo? Not quite like that, to be sure. The movie is unabashedly a teenboy’s wet dream, something made amply clear about five minutes in, when a tanned blonde highschool babe offers up her body to the winner of a grudge-match roadrace. The sheer wet dreaminess of it all is quickly and cheerfully acknowledged in the dialogue: as our hero motors into an implausible multistory car park filled with tattooed Asian hotties in microskirts bent over throbbing engine bays, his buddy hands him a conveniently at-hand box of tissues. After a split second of incomprehension: “That’s for when you blow your wad, man.” How thoughtful!

Our teen hero, Sean, supposedly 17 years old, is played by Lucas Black, already 24 back then (and already able to pass for forty), which made him the oldest teen swinger in Tokyo town—and the most ridiculous one ever to try and ease himself behind a Tokyo high school desk, albeit at a most fantastical high school where something akin to sushi but more elaborate, rather than curry rice, is served for lunch.

As we’re in the Tokyo ’hood and all, we have to get with the local lingo, and until very late in the action, where Sean develops overnight a stunning competence in Japanese, the movie is fixated on two words: gaijin, foreigner, which goes through many mutations, the most favored being a heavily accented first syllable and a long drawn-out second—GUYjean—and yakuza, gangster, which is pronounced as if “bazooka” had had its “b” replaced with a “y” and the “z” and the “k” swapped—yaKOOza. I braced myself for what was surely to come, and yes, there it was, halfway in, uttered by Sean’s gone-native and fount-of-local-wisdom father: “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down”. Let that be a lesson to all you drifters out there. But don’t worry too much if you’re a foreigner, as Sean’s drift guru Han has some words of Nietzschean wisdom to impart: “Outsider, insider, doesn’t really matter, all that matters is knowing what you really want and going after it”. Austrian house-painter Adolf Hitler would have been hugely consoled.

Due to the utter dearth of thoroughbred Japanese actors and actresses able to get by in English, everyone in the movie under 40 of any importance, aside from Sean (white) and his pal Twinkie (black) is a hero of hyphenation: Sean’s guru, Korean-American actor Sung Kang; the love interest, Peruvian-Australian actress Nathalie Kelly; the villain, Japanese-Korean-American actor Brian Tee, and the villain’s sidekick, Argentina-born Korean-Australian actor Leonardo Nam, which gives the movie the air of having been filmed not in the monoculture of Tokyo but in polyglot Los Angles—as indeed much of it was…  

So I found myself one sweltering and thunderous August Saturday pounding up the Tohoku Expressway in search of drift. The first surprise was the Ebisu Circuit car park: aside from the odd souped-up econobox that no go-faster sticker or low-profile tire should ever grace, the spectators’ vehicles were eminently sensible and would not have looked out of place in the lot of a suburban supermarket.

Stalls that lined the path to the main circuit offered insights into the culture of drift.

The T-shirt hanging left-center assigns ateji, phonetically equivalent Chinese characters, to the four Japanese syllables of “drift”—怒輪, “dori”, “angry wheels”, 風徒, “futo”, “follow the wind”, making the foreign indigenous. On its left, the towel is adorned with the expression togekotai (峠攻隊, mountain-pass attack force), in conscious echo of the tokkotai (特攻隊) special attack forces of World War II, known to the rest of the world as kamikaze pilots.

A stall offering one of the strangest of all offshoots of the phenomenon of drift: rajidori, radio-controlled miniature drift cars, which once had to have their wheels encased in PVC tubing to make them slippery enough to drift but now come equipped with their own tiny low-grip drift tires.

Crea (vocals) and Mia (rap) of duo 80’s☆Doll, selected in last year as official D1 artists, were hawking their debut album, Lip Service, a lively mix of eighties disco music and current club sounds (says their website).

A kimono-clad lovely was doling out free samples of Beast Eye, a homegrown alternative to Red Bull. A fair few of the womenfolk, who made up maybe a quarter of the crowd, had donned kimono for the occasion, which lent the proceedings a matsuri feel, as did the customary and coronary-inducing choice of festival fare: kara’age fried chicken, American dogs (deep-fried sausages on sticks), and fried yaki soba noodles.

Over the tannoys, the MCs chattered away about a shank of beef that was roasting on a giant spit and would later be carved up for all who stayed for the evening fireworks.

No mention was made of the home of the cow that had been slaughtered to fill the bellies of the worshippers of drift; let’s hope it wasn’t a local, radioactive one.

The setting was certainly stunning: this view of the stands looks east, over the central Fukushima valley and out toward Fukushima Daiichi beyond the pale blue hills in the distance.

No surprise that prominent among the sponsors were three tire brands, Toyo Tires, Dunlop, and Goodyear: drift is so brutal to tires that many pro drift racers change theirs after every bout, which lasts all of a couple of minutes. 

My guess was that the grand prix had mustered an attendance of three or four thousand, around the number that gathered back in October 2000 for the very first D1 races: drift then was perhaps neither thriving nor dying, but idling, ticking over. Still, there was enough money left in the pot to afford an LED ad truck, to remind you where you were in case you forgot.

Back on the circuit, the D1 machines screamed on, leaving layered acrid veils of burnt rubber through which others had to drift.

There exists a drift technique, “smoky curtain driving” (煙幕走行, enmaku soko), designed to exploit the haze and rob drivers behind of their sight, although it wasn’t being deliberately practiced here.

A short sharp squall breezed down from up in the mountains, and the nimble drift cars, at both sides of the limit of adhesion in the dry, were reduced to lumbering dinosaurs in the wet, gingerly tiptoeing into corners at half their normal speed and even then often spinning out to shunt the walls of tires and giant polystyrene blocks. 

The track dried out soon enough and my attention turned to the scoring, which operates on an all-must-have-prizes principle. Drivers start out with 100 points and have them deducted for not following the prescribed line around the four corners on which they are judged, for wobbles, for sloth, for shallow angles, and for lifting off the throttle. Nobody scores fewer than around 95 points (with usual local precision, scores are pushed out to two decimal places, so 96.78 would represent an average score) unless they spin or lose their drift and return to the prosaic world of grip.  

It dawned on me that not only was drift scored like figure skating, it resembled it in a host of other ways. All other motorsports are akin to speed skating, where time is not only of the essence, it is the essence. In drift, though, while speed is key, it is not an absolute god whose word is law. Drift, like figure skating, has single and pair events, and outside of regular competition, synchronized drifting with multiple cars. Drift, like figure skating, is about skill, transition, execution, choreography, and interpretation (the five components of the International Skating Union non-technical judging system). Drifters even practice figures of eight, and pirouettes around a single cone.

My attention wandered back to the crowd. D1 spectatorship was not just an escape for lonely young men but a day out for the whole orange family.

Go Team Orange! (Whoever said Japan was suffering from a collapsing birth rate?)

A pair of portly, bonneted, and very well provisioned women left too many questions unanswered.

Was that a brace of young mullets I saw before me? The father’s baseball cap bore the forbidding Rabelaisian legend: “One half of the world does not know how the other half lives”. Amen to that—and the halves of the global fruit can be sliced at so many angles.

Unimaginatively, I dubbed this willowy trio the Vuitton boys, after the Vuitton clutch bag one of them slung nonchalantly from his shoulder and the Vuitton wallet one of them carelessly left sticking out of his back pocket. Wonder how long they’d last at a NASCAR race?

 

Up in the stands stood the pink Crocs tribe, the leader sporting a pair of those monstrous crimes against footwear in the most shocking of shades.

For some, the heat and the smoke and the excitement, not to mention the family feuds, had all become a bit too much, underscoring the uncanny local ability to sleep through unholy levels of noise.

Finally I found a fence-free sweet spot, on the last corner before the finish line, from which to snap the drifters slip sliding away. You know the nearer your destination…

One of the incidental fascinations of drift is its physics, the subject of a droll 2006 paper with a Keatsian title, On the Dynamics of Automobile Drifting, by Mujahid Abdulrahim of the University of Florida for the US Society of Automotive Engineers.

Drifting is…an important part of any memorable movie scene involving a police chase. Despite the performance advantages of low-sideslip driving, it is well known that villains are more appropriately apprehended with much tire squealing and smoke.

Abdulrahim kindly explains from his lofty physicist’s perch that drift “challenges drivers to navigate a course in a sustained sideslip by exploiting coupled nonlinearities in the tire force response”, a thought unlikely to be uppermost in the mind of the average drifter approaching the apex of a bend. Here are some random shots of passing sideslippers captioned with soundbites on the physics of drift.

Takahiro Imamura (39) in a Mazda RX7 FC3S (1986-1991)

Through the complex relationship between slips and forces, equilibrium is achieved in general with front tires in counter-steer and rear tires spinning.

Robbie Nishida (33) in a Toyota Cresta JZX90 (1992-1996)

The coupling between longitudinal slip and lateral force is of particular importance for drifting, considering this is the primary means by which moment stabilization can be achieved at large sideslip.

Tatsuya Kataoka (32) in a Toyota Trueno AE86 (1983-1987)

The rear tires in a typical drift maneuver operate in the nonlinear plateau regime while the front tires operate nearer the linear range at small slip angles.

Ryoji Jinushi (37) in a Toyota Soarer JZZ30 (1991-2000)

The sideforce generated at large sideslip is generally less than the maximum sideforce, thus drifts cannot maintain high levels of lateral acceleration. Drifting produces unstable conditions such as positive cornering stiffness gradients and large restoring/upsetting yaw moments.

Yoshikazu Kawakami (36) in a Nissan Silvia S14 (1995-2000)

Thus, the challenge of drift racing is manipulating the vehicle controls to achieve small yaw moments in order to maintain a large-amplitude sideslip attitude.

None of these cars, at their battered and beaten cores, was less than a decade old, and a couple might have been on the road a quarter of a century. These were low-ranked drivers, to be sure, with scarcely a point between them all season, but the drivers on the leader-board were largely at the reins of steeds no more modern. Almost without exception the drivers are on the far side of thirty, with some, such as number four ranked Ken Nomura (48), pushing the half century mark. Drift, I concluded, was getting gouty, putting on a middle-aged gut—much like the land that gave birth to it.

Despite our physicist’s talk of longitudinal and lateral tractive forces, the dominant force that drift both does battle with and tries to harness is inertia, as does any attempt to pilot round a corner at moderate velocity a modern vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine, which would much rather go straight on. A motorsport called drift with inertia at its heart: could there be a better mirror-metaphor to hold up to contemporary society?

Aside from half-Japanese US army brat (and I mean that in the kindest way) Robbie Nishida, pictured above, there was only one foreign driver on the circuit that day, Italian Federico Sceriffo, whose Subaru Impreza’s business end looks like this.

Neither of them had accrued any points in the season thus far, and much as it pains me to say, I suspect neither—nor any GUYjean—has much of a chance of climbing the rankings, unless drift gets itself organized under an international governing body, as it should—why, if figure skating is, it could be an Olympic sport one day.

Among the 38 (naturally all-male) drivers, only one was at the wheel of a foreign marque: Takahiro Ueno in a BMW 320i, the traitorous filler in this colorful sandwich.

And as far as I could tell, your tourist-correspondent in the world of drift was the only roundeye in the spectator stands.

Of my two trips to Ebisu, I preferred the former, with its overwhelming shock of the new. At the D1 Grand Prix, there was not even an overpriced beer to be had, thanks be no doubt to the Fukushima constabulary. The patter of the MCs was drenched in excruciatingly formal Japanese and winners were welcomed to the podium with a tremulous titter of applause. A friend known for his delicate turn of phrase forecast that Ebisu would be chockablock with “chapatsu slappers” (translation: women of easy virtue with dyed brown hair) but there was scarcely a bottle brunette to be found. Drift at the top has been professionalized, commercialized, sanitized, and suburbanized, stripped by the dominant culture of the “sub” of its subculture. Nothing wrong with that in many ways—even drifters have to eat, after all. But in the long and winding road from ura to omote, something fierce and vital has been sacrificed along the way: the barking, howling, snarling beast of drift has finally been tamed.

After the earthquake: So farewell then, Plutonium kun

It’s not widely known, but the feckless, reckless, and soon to be penniless operator of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), built an eight-storey tribute to itself, Denryokukan—The Hall of Electric Power—deep in the heart of the Tokyo youth fashion mecca of Shibuya back in the Orwellian year of 1984, when the picking of the fruits of its tree of monopoly profits was good.

I’d love to bring you a live report from The Hall of Electric Power (admission free), but sadly I can’t, because it was closed in April last year for renovation and was due for a grand renewal open, as we call such things hereabouts, with the impeccable timing that only a master of disaster such as TEPCO can muster, on March 20, just nine days after the tsunami set in train the continuing carnage at Fukushima Daiichi, and The Hall will remain closed, its website informs with deep apologies (if a website could bow, this one would), “for the time being”.

Unable to sample the treasures of the Alpha Wave Library and the delights of the Induction Heating Herb Café first hand, I’ll have to fall back on a report of a long-ago visit by a traveler from Finland, who calls The Hall “a bizarre electrified Disneyland with displays like The Electric Forest and the ever-popular Demand Side Management Theater”. He goes on to recount a surreal 3D movie being shown in the eighth floor TEPCO Hall:

I was expecting a 3D tour of a power plant or the life of a uranium atom or something, and the first 15 minutes were indeed a 2D cartoon on how to conserve energy, but then the actual movie started—and wow! It was very 3D, limited only by the relatively small screen and motionless seats, but the movie itself was an absolutely stunning animated feature called 銀河鉄道999 (Galaxy Express 999). The movie packed all the twists and turns of a 2-hour movie into 15 minutes, with our approximately 10-year-old protagonist taking a steam locomotive in the company of a wispy blonde in a fur hat. The locomotive flies out into space, where he meets a waitress named Kurea who is made of transparent crystal, walks around naked and weeps about being lonely. Then there’s a laser-gun firefight, the train goes out of control and heads straight into an asteroid field, the blonde turns out to be an evil robot in disguise and then the boy wakes up and realizes that it was all a dream… or was it?

But what most intrigued me about his account was reference to a trio of image characters, as we call them hereabouts: “Cosmos kun, Pluto kun (as in -nium) and TEPCO’s generic mascot Denko chan…all explaining why nuclear power is good for you.”

To my eternal chagrin, I haven’t been able to track down Cosmos kun, but Denko chan (でんこちゃん), whose name comes from the “den” of electric power (電力, denryoku), the “ko” (子, child) in which female names so often end, trapping their bearers in a state of eternal childhood, and the generally female diminutive suffix “chan”, can be found everywhere in TEPCO propaganda. Here she is, with finger characteristically a-wagging, admonishing us to “Take care of electricity!”

And here, exhorting us to “Make friends with electricity!”

She features on a bewildering variety of character goods, as we call them hereabouts, from pen top to mobile phone strap, bento lunchbox to T-shirt. Here she graces a pair of oven mitts.

She has—inevitably—attracted her own fan art, some of it—just as inevitably—rather racy.

But the undisputed star of the galaxy of TEPCO image characters must be Plutonium kun. I once wrote of Yu-chan, the cartoon mascot of the battered former coal town of Yubari, that “Japan of course has a massive talent for cuteification: if you can cuteify coalmining, you can cuteify anything”, but never in my darkest nightmares did I dream of encountering Plutonium kun. He’s a hard lad to track down, not having proven as popular as Denko chan, but I did manage to salvage this image from the recesses of the Internet.

The text, with its furigana reading aids above every kanji character and its childish vocabulary, in which “non-fissile uranium” is referred to as “unburnable uranium”, is aimed at the very young, to get them hooked on plutonium from an early age, and demands, nay begs, to be translated, so here goes:

Plutonium is made by having unburnable uranium (uranium 238) soak up neutrons in a nuclear reactor, and when it turns into plutonium it can be used as a fuel in nuclear power generation, just like uranium. By using plutonium, uranium resources can be used more economically. Plutonium kun is a visualization of unburnable uranium being transformed into plutonium.

Plutonium kun also appeared in a 10-minute anime made about a decade ago by the Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corporation (now the Japan Atomic Energy Agency), an industry body specializing in the development of fast-breeder and advanced-thermal reactors, an anime that was swiftly withdrawn in part because of a scene in which Plutonium kun gets his boy pal to drink a glass of liquid plutonium while he sweetly intones that “I’m hardly absorbed by your stomach or intestines and I’m expelled by your body, so in fact I can’t kill people at all”.

Kind hands have made the anime available in its entirety here, although for the squeamish and those who don’t speak Japanese I recommend as a sampler the 30-second clip here.

The events of 3/11 make it unlikely we will see the likes of Plutonium kun again. If only his real-life namesake were so easy to eradicate. But wait—there’s one last use to which he can be put. By all accounts, the many routes in and out of the 20km-30km evacuation advisory zone and the 20km evacuation zone around Fukushima Daiichi are largely bereft of warning signs or patrols to prevent the wandering motorist from straying too close to the plant. Why not get TEPCO to deploy the hordes of Mickey Mouses made temporarily unemployed by the closure of Tokyo Disney Resort because of the liquefaction of its parking lots, dress them up as Plutonium kun, arm them with Jedi lightsabers, triple their pay for danger money, and post them on the access roads at the perimeter of the exclusion zone to direct traffic? It would be far less cruel, after all, than the way TEPCO treats its employees battling to avert catastrophe within the plant. And it would serve to remind the world that, as its logo hints, TEPCO has always been a disastrously Mickey Mouse kind of company.

 

[With massive props to A.E. for the Denryokukan tip-off and many thanks to H.T. for the reminder of the similarities between the TEPCO logo and his mouseship.]

Huis ten Bosch: Only Miffy can save us now

(part three of three)

The gardens of the real Paleis Huis ten Bosch were never finished; obviously that would not do for the hyperreal Paleis Huis ten Bosch. The hyperreal sent Professor Treib into rapture: “a magnificent tunnelo encircles the principal parterre, itself kept in eloquent trim.”

A gilt plaque at the entrance to the gardens carries the words of Yumi Katsura, bridal mother since 2006, who would like you to know that:

Here I declare this land as “Lover’s Sanctuary” to impart the joy and the magic of encounters, blissful marriages, and raising a happy home. I send my blessings to your encounters and wish you a wonderful future.

Belonging only to a single lover, the gardens must be a solitary sanctuary.

Much of the Paleis is open to the public; while once its exhibits may have served to educate, today they came across, bereft of explanation, as a folkloric freakshow.

More cutouts, these two to inform you that a modern Dutchman, at 184cm, is considerably taller than his 17th century forebear, at 160cm.

In many rooms, either the inspiration of ideas or the perspiration of money had run out.

Then suddenly, breathtakingly, in the midst of kitsch there was art, art that had somehow snuck past the sullen sentries of bad taste guarding the perimeter of the park. The room equates to the Orangezaal (Orange Hall) in the real Huis ten Bosch, which looked like this in a 1650 painting by Caesar Van Everdingen:

Huis ten Bosch was built in the mid-17th century for Princess Amalia of Solms-Braunfels, a grandmother, incidentally, of King William III of England, who after the death in 1647 of her husband, Stadtholder Frederik Hendrik, the freer of the Republic from the Spanish boot, had the central hall of the palace converted into a mausoleum in his memory, covered with allegorical murals glorifying the triumph over the Spanish by a dozen of the most celebrated artists of the day.

Queen Beatrix baulked at a reproduction of the Orangezaal in Japan, perhaps feeling that it was too private, perhaps feeling that it was too martial. Thwarted, Kamichika and company turned to a former director of the Rijksmuseum, Simon Levie, to commission a contemporary Dutch artist, and he chose Rob Scholte, known in some quarters as the Dutch Andy Warhol, who had recently gained notoriety for a parody of Manet’s Olympia in which the recumbent woman is replaced by a wooden puppet.

Scholte’s reaction, as Levie explained what the Huis ten Bosch of the east entailed, was one of someone grounded in fashionable critical theory:

I immediately thought: this seems absurd, this is postmodernism in its purest form.
(Ik dacht meteen: dit lijkt me absurd, dit is postmodernisme in zijn zuiverste vorm.)

The massive 1,200m2 mural, Après nous le Déluge, took four years, 1991-1995, to complete, the project delayed by a hand grenade that exploded under Scholte’s car outside his Amsterdam studio in November 1994 and resulted in the amputation of both his legs in a case of mistaken identity, a bombing which ironically prevented the mural from being unveiled, as intended, on August 9, 1995, the 50th anniversary of another bombing, that of Nagasaki. 

Après nous le Déluge is at once provocative and playful: provocative in its stridently apocalyptic vision of warfare in an Orangezaal for an anti-war age, playful in the way it toys with reproduction—in its appropriation of Golden Age painters—and originality, with its Dutch traffic light chandeliers and its bicycle pump cordon posts, topped by a marvelous trompe l’oeil cupola which serves to submerge the naval battles on the walls, and by so submerging them, consigns them to history. In its interplay of reproduction and originality it stands as a commentary, half-amused perhaps, perhaps half-affectionate, on the theme park in which it finds itself.

All realist art, in which the Dutch Golden Age excelled, aspires to be a trompe l’oeil. In his 1642 pamphlet, Praise of Painting, Dutch painter Philips Angel recounts approvingly the Greek legend, as told Pliny the Elder, of the rivalry between two painters, Zeuxis and Parrhasius. Zeuxis painted grapes so real that birds would peck at them, while Parrhasius, determined to outdo his rival, invited Zeuxis to inspect one of his paintings, covered with a curtain. Zeuxis asked Parrhasius to draw the curtain aside, but the curtain was the painting, and Zeuxis confessed himself vanquished, exclaiming, “Zeuxis has deceived birds, but Parrhasius has deceived Zeuxis himself!”

Theme parks, too, aspire to be a trompe l’oeil, escapist landscapes deceiving the consenting visitor into a willing suspension of disbelief in both space and time. Strolling around Huis ten Bosch, I found it easy enough to summon up the mental elisions necessary to gloss over the asynchronous putter of the internal combustion engine and the anachronous cha-ching of the cash register, to drift in and out of a 17th century, albeit one scrubbed neatly clean of pox and pestilence, disastrous inundation and public execution, war and art. Space was a different matter, though, as an un-Dutch world made endless intrusion. At one moment, the intrusion took the shape of a too elegantly Oriental arrangement of fronds and fenceposts outside a Japanese restaurant.

At another, it was the view from the Domtoren over grim military housing for the local US naval base, Fleet Activities Sasebo.

The grinding heat and humidity, coupled with the backdrop of mountains, were constant reminders that we weren’t in Groningen anymore. When dawn came the next day, the sky was so low and the rain came down in sheets so thick that it was hard to tell if night had left off and day had begun, as islands reared up in Omura Bay like the backs of giant prehistoric crocodiles and billows of cloud hugged the mountains around the bay as if emanations from some undousable subterranean fire destined to burn forever. No, this definitely wasn’t Groningen anymore.

While I’ve scarcely set an adult foot in the Netherlands, I was weaned on Golden Age art, courtesy of the local picture gallery, and above all the landscapes of long-forgotten artists like Aelbert Cuyp, Philips Wouwerman, and Meindert Hobbema, where for instance windmills are not charming scenic adornments, their phony sails electric powered, but mighty instruments of dominion over water, as in The Mill at Wijk by Jacob van Ruysdael in the Rijksmuseum,

and this was a huge hindrance to the suspension of disbelief.

Before I set out for Kyushu and Huis ten Bosch, I told a female colleague not known for mincing words where I was going. “Eeeh, yada! Norimono bakari.” Ew, yuck! It’s just rides. How wrong she was. There are almost no rides, indeed very little for kids to do at all, and that was Kamichika’s intention, for Huis ten Bosch was meant to be a theme park for adults, and especially perhaps for what the Japanese, torturing a noun out of a French preposition, call “avec”, young courting couples. At some point, though, someone had realized the error of this but, lacking funds, tacked on a feeble funfair that has now been stilled.

In what a state of delightful innocence the creator of Corky must dwell.

Huis ten Bosch has been beset from the outset by three great failings: the failure of geography, the failure of underinvestment, and the failure of conception. The failure of geography we’ve dealt with: tucked away in a hard-to-access corner of Kyushu, its catchment area shrank hard and fast once the Bubble fashion for extravagant airborne weekends of indulgence gave way to the sobering realities of the hangover. The failure of underinvestment was a necessary consequence of the extortionate amount Huis ten Bosch cost to build. Without unending investment in novelty, theme parks cannot attract the repeat visitor, and in Japan, still the land of shinhatsubai, the freshest and newest on sale, novelty matters. Most grievous of all, though, has been the failure of conception: while I adore the humility in riches of the Dutch Golden Age—surely no other place and time has scripted its history so diligently and beautifully in its art—and abhor the vacuity and disingenuity of Disney’s “The Happiest Place on Earth”, I realize that most people are not like me, and Huis ten Bosch has always lacked a compelling theme and the characters to go with it. While Disneylands have Mickey and Minnie and a cast of thousands, while Universal Studios has Spiderman and Shrek and Sesame Street, to name but a few, Huis ten Bosch has, well, Miffy.

Not that Miffy is a bad little rabbit to have on your side. In a 2008 interview in UK newspaper The Telegraph with Miffy’s creator, Dutch artist and illustrator Dick Bruna, journalist Horatia Harrod reports that Japan is home to Miffy’s most ardent fans and her most lavish consumers:

In Bruna’s studio there are gifts from children all around the world, but most numerous are the cards artfully crafted from patterned paper, and flocks of origami birds which are sent for good luck. When Bruna goes for his morning coffee, he says, ‘there are often Japanese people waiting there—they know’. And when he toured Britain on Miffy’s 50th anniversary, he was followed from venue to venue by a middle-aged Japanese woman who sported a Miffy painted on each cheek.

It’s just that Huis ten Bosch seems incompletely capable of exploiting the Miffyverse, with its 118 picture books, to the full, to say nothing of Miffy’s friends, Boris and Barbara Bear and Poppy Pig, who are nowhere to be found. Where were the Miffy rides? Where were the adults dressed as Miffy ready to pose for snapshots with excited children (and middle-aged women)? Where was the Miffy experience?

Travel agency H.I.S. took over Huis ten Bosch in April 2010, and here and there were signs of investment.

An encouragingly quadrilingual hoarding announced that a haunted house was about to open.

An exhibit, running for three months, replicating famous scenes from the long-running TV anime One Piece, was also about to open.

At the February 2010 news conference announcing the takeover, H.I.S. Chairman Hideo Sawada exuded a breezy confidence: “We aim to take the firm into the black in as early as two years. We are 99% sure we will succeed.” Plans include an H.I.S. call center, enabling the company to cut its own costs, an outlet mall, and a business center. In an August 2010 interview with The Nikkei Weekly, Sawada offered an incisive enough analysis of the problems of Huis ten Bosch:

I think it is essential for a successful theme park to have not only a good location but also characters and content attractive enough to make visitors want to come again. The old Huis ten Bosch was just a rehash of good old Dutch streets. A single visit was enough for people. For the newborn Huis ten Bosch, we plan to lure a diverse range of companies, making use of its vast stretch of land.

There have been early glimmers of success: visitor numbers leapt 24% on the year in the Golden Week holidays in late April and early May and 38% over the summer. But before we break out the champagne to celebrate the rebirth of the phoenix of Huis ten Bosch from the ashes of insolvency, some words of caution are warranted. In its FY10/10 results, H.I.S. crowed:

Therefore, the company [Huis ten Bosch], which was included in the scope of the consolidation this year, recorded Y5,570mn [$67.8mn] in sales but an operating loss of Y113mn [$1.38mn] for the period from April 1, 2010 to September 30, 2010. However, the company recorded a recurring profit of Y429mn [$5.22mn] for the period, for the first time ever since its establishment, and was able to form a base of profitability.

What H.I.S. doesn’t deign to tell us is what caused the remarkable turnaround from the loss at the operating line to the profit at the recurring line. My bet is that it was almost certainly the subsidies from Sasebo. Far from having “a base of profitability”, Huis ten Bosch remains effectively in the red, even with the jump in visitor numbers.

H.I.S. said in February 2010 it planned to invest only Y2bn ($22.2mn), with local worthies such as Kyushu Electric Power stumping up another Y1bn, altogether less than a third committed back in 2003 by Nomura, which also enjoyed a dead cat bounce in visitor numbers when it took over, and although H.I.S. has Y46.3bn ($564mn) in cash stashed away, its pockets will not be bottomlessly deep. As early as September there was a hint in the Nikkei that its budget for investment is already being whittled down. 

If Huis ten Bosch presented a desolate spectacle by day, then by night, with the day-trippers gone, it gave off a still more despondent air. A lugubrious rain came on, and I bought a made-in-China Huis ten Bosch umbrella whose spokes broke at the first gust of wind. Muzak, of which there were at least half a dozen types, from jauntily fluty to accordion schmaltzy, noodled on and on. Being at Huis ten Bosch was like being put on hold by a corporate call center—for eternity. There was live muzak to be had, too. 

A pair of Frenchmen sawed and crooned their way through Maurice Chevalier’s Sous les Toits de Paris to the faintest smattering of applause. These were the only foreign entertainers I came across, the rest having been dismissed—like many hundreds of the Japanese staff—long ago. As Elvis felt with his New Amsterdam, so I felt with mine: it had all become much too much, and I had to step on the brakes to get out of her clutches. 

I retreated to the wholly deserted Bar Astral at the ANA Hotel to make some acerbic, gin-sodden notes, one of which reads, “Huis ten Bosch is an idea so monumentally and catastrophically bizarre that it can hold its head high in the exalted company of the greatest delusional fantasies of all time—Operation Barbarossa, say, or Operation Iraqi Freedom.”

Softened by the passage of time and the accumulation of research, Huis ten Bosch is now in retrospect my most beloved example of a favorite kind of place, one like Seagaia that clings tenaciously by its fingertips to the cliff of life, against all odds. Of one thing we can be certain, though: until Huis ten Bosch, the greatest artifact by far of those crazy eighties years, finally fails or flourishes, the boil of the Bubble will not have been lanced from the body of Japan for good.

What chances of survival for Huis ten Bosch, still very much in the intensive care unit? As a fan from childhood of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, I’d put them at worse than even, but only time, envious time, fortune’s Ferris-wheel, and the efforts and the wallets of all now involved will tell. I fear, though, that the plans of H.I.S. are incoherent, no better than the heavy application of lipstick on a pig. I fear that the shackles of the Bubble fetter escape from the miasmas of the past. I fear, Huis ten Bosch, that only Miffy—and Jude the Apostle—can save you now.

Postscript: There remains one loose end that needs to be tied. Whatever happened to the creator of Huis ten Bosch, Yoshikuni Kamichika? He’s still around. Runs his own management consultancy. Shouldn’t that be “mismanagement consultancy”? Calls it the Eco Research Institute, trading on Huis ten Bosch’s largely spurious green credentials. Looks like every other salaryman pushing seventy. If you met him on the street, you’d have no idea of the joy he brought and the trouble he caused.

Huis ten Bosch: Only Miffy can save us now

(part two of three)

The first sign on the squally Sunday on which I visited that something was still rotten in the state of Huis ten Bosch came at the admission gates: of the 22, just two were staffed.

Since birth, Huis ten Bosch has been hamstrung by its location on the westernmost fringe of mainland Japan, but the plan now—as it has been since the Nomura days—is to turn that to its advantage by playing the China card. As the crow flies, Sasebo is closer to Shanghai (800km) than it is to Tokyo (960km). With the Boston Consulting Group forecasting in November 2010 that “the population of China’s middle-class consumers will increase from 150mn to more than 400mn over the next decade”, the China card seems a promising one to play—indeed, the entire Japanese tourism industry is trying to play it—and on the day I visited, maybe a quarter of the visitors were from the Sinosphere.

The Chinese were easy to spot: they foraged in larger flocks than the Japanese, in much the way for which Japanese tourists were mocked a couple of decades ago. They seemed contented enough, taking endless group portraits in front of the Domtoren, but will they rave about their experiences to friends? China Daily reported recently that China has 2,500 theme parks already, with Shanghai Disneyland due to open in 2014, adding that only a quarter are profitable—a sign that the lessons of Huis ten Bosch have not been learned.

While the ostensible theme of Huis ten Bosch is the Netherlands of the good old days—though some say it is Europe as a whole—it has been muddied down the years, as was evident by the presence of a North American interloper, the teddy bear. There were teds everywhere: concrete bondage teds,

XXL teds sporting suggestive leers,

out and proud teds,

and horseback-mounted teds clinging on for dear life.

In the cheese farm, Boerenkaas, with its little cheese clogs, hung little cheese people.

But wasn’t Huis ten Bosch one gigantic farm of cheese?

Outside the cheese farm, I ran into a hitherto unsuspected evolutionary development in bovine sexual dimorphism, with the sorely chipped adult Friesian bull half the size of the udderless heifer.

WINS Sasebo was not your granddad’s betting shop, old men enshrouded in plumes of smoke, licking stubs of pencils and crackling newspapers, pinning their hopes on She’s A Goer in the 3.30 at Chepstow.

A sprinkling of punters watched a giant screen of thoroughbreds being paraded in a paddock.

In the foyer, posters thundered against the evils of nomiya, unlicensed—and therefore illegal—bookies, many—maybe most—with links to the mob, who graft a dishonest living by being a little less greedy with their margins than the whopping 25% pari-mutuel take of the Japan Racing Association. House WINS again. Like monopolists the world over, the association is fervent in the protection of its monopoly.

At a very generous guesstimate, there were 10,000 fellow visitors with me on the day I was there but they are soon swallowed up in a place the size of Huis ten Bosch, and away from the tourist honeypot of the Domtoren, the streets were deserted—the theme park as ghost town, an edited cityscape that has expunged human tumult just as surely as the primacy given to architectural draughtsmanship in the Dutch Golden Era paintings of Jan van der Hayden (1637-1712) did.

How very different Huis ten Bosch must have been in its mid-1990s heyday, when ex-Python Michael Palin paid a visit in the course of making a TV travelogue, Full Circle:

I walk around, one of the four million annual visitors, and marvel for a while at the thoroughness of it all. Architectural detail is precise and well-crafted. There are occasional glimpses of actual Dutch people mainly engaged in ethnic activities, such as the cheese carriers or the bicycle band. The bicycle band is worth the price of admission alone. There is something almost transcendentally surreal about seeing a woman dressed in a large white bonnet, dirndl, black stockings and clogs riding a bicycle and at the same time playing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ on a trombone.

At its apogee, Huis ten Bosch employed more than 100 Dutch denizens to engage “in ethnic activities”, and tidbits like this might encourage the uncharitable observer to view the theme park as an unparalleled exercise in Occidentalism, not dissimilar in kind to the kowtows before Tsunayoshi (1646-1709), the “dog shogun”, that German naturalist Englebert Kaempfer (1651-1716) reported the Dutch residents of Dejima were obliged to undergo on 20 April, 1692, almost three centuries to the day before Huis ten Bosch opened:

The shogun asked [the translator] to welcome us, have us sit upright, take off our coats, state our name and age, get up and walk, first act and dance, and then sing a song and pay compliments to each other, punish each other, get angry, prevail upon a guest, and hold a conversation. …

We had to play husband and wife, and the women laughed heartily about the kiss. Then we had to show how we saluted people of lesser rank, women, nobles, a king. After that, they said I was to sing another piece by myself, and I did this to their satisfaction by singing two, which all liked so much that they asked whether one had to learn this as an art. Then we had to take off our coats, and one after the other step in front of the blinds and bid farewell in the most exuberant fashion, as we would to a king in Europe, and after that we left. Judging from people’s expressions and laughter, they were all very pleased.

Except that in this demotic age, the obeisance was not to the shogun but to the masses, the inhabitants of a nation that had recently been crowned the wealthiest in the history of humankind, from one that had once held the title.

This exercise in Occidentalism, if that is what Huis ten Bosch is, was willed into being with the full complicity of those being objectified, from Queen Beatrix—who tops a very short list of celebrity visitors that unsurprisingly includes Michael Jackson—on down.

This cartoon pastiche decal of the Groot Rijkswapen, the coat of arms of the Netherlands, was created with the full permission of the Dutch royal family.

Not only were the canal streets devoid of life; so were most of the houses that lined them. One of Huis ten Bosch’s innovations was to have the theme park run entirely from the inside—unlike a Disneyland, say, there is no backstage, everything is mise en scène—so a few of the houses are given over to the nuts and bolts of the operations, but most are empty, their net curtains rustling behind leaded windows an attempt to conceal the purloined sham of the Potemkin village, a Potemkin village more immaculate and elaborate than any purportedly built to deceive Catherine the Great.

The lifeless neatness of Huis ten Bosch was beginning to gnaw and grate, and I could feel myself succumbing to a drowsy dullness of spirit that had me recalling some choice lines of William Gibson, that lover of the interstitial and the ill-at-ease, from his 1993 essay on Singapore, Disneyland with the Death Penalty:

But still. And after all. It’s boring here. And somehow it’s the same ennui that lies in wait in any theme park, but particularly in those that are somehow in too aggressively spiffy a state of repair.

As the ennui swept over me, I grew consumed by an irrational hatred, not of Kamichika and his vision, but of the stolid worthiness of the Dutch that had been his inspiration.

Such liberal people, the Dutch, a little blunt in their forthrightness perhaps, but really a beacon of hope for humanity. Why, some of my best friends are Dutch. Some of my relatives even, although only by marriage, I hasten to add. Everyone loves the Dutch, don’t they?

Not in the 17th century they didn’t. To the citrus-enriched seafarers among their Spanish overlords, scurvy, long before natural gas, was the original Dutch disease. To the Chinese, the Dutch were the terrifying hongmao Red Hairs, feared even more than the Japanese wokou Dwarf Pirates, more shocking than the—at least decently black-haired—Portuguese aoyi, the Macanese foreigners, and only one rung up the racial ladder from African slaves, known as heigui, Black Ghosts. The French weren’t all fans, either: a hack, Pierre le Jolle, writing for the Marquis de Louvois (1639-1691), the French Secretary of State for War, six years before 1672—the Dutch rampjaar, the annus horribilis of the French invasion in which the Marquis was instrumental, the year that marked the end of Dutch exceptionalism—dismissed the wonders of its capital, wonders that another Frenchman, René Descartes, in exile in 1631, had described as “an inventory of the possible”, with contempt:

Amsterdam, quoi qu’on loue
Est faite de merde et de boue
(Amsterdam, where’er you look,
Is made of shit and mud)

But no one hated the Dutch more than the English. The English fought three almost wholly naval wars against the Dutch between 1652 and 1674, winning the first, losing the second and the third, but as often happens, winning the peace. As England, a nation mad for war, readied in 1665 for the second encounter, the cry of “No clogs!” went up among English yeomen, supposing themselves freeborn and the Dutch peasantry to be enserfed. After a few hours at Huis ten Bosch, the cry began to resonate.

Andrew Marvell recycled a poem, The Character of Holland, written in the English republican interregnum, to serve the now royalist English cause:

Holland, that scarce deserves the name of land,
As but th’ off-scouring of the British sand;
And so much earth as was contributed
By English pilots when they heav’d the lead;
Or what by th’ ocean’s slow alluvion fell,
Of shipwrack’d cockle and the mussel-shell;
This indigested vomit of the sea
Fell to the Dutch by just propriety. 

Glad then, as miners that have found the ore,
They with mad labour fish’d the land to shore;
And div’d as desperately for each piece
Of earth, as if’t had been of ambergris;
Collecting anxiously small loads of clay,
Less than what building swallows bear away;
Or than those pills which sordid beetles roll,
Transfusing into them their dunghill soul.

The Dutch, long before the French, were the frogs to the English, as historian Simon Schama relates in his interpretation of Dutch Golden Age culture, The Embarrassment of Riches:

In the bestiary of popular xenophobia, the Dutchman was still the gross and comical Nick Frog, the “son of mud who worships mammon” and who needed a periodic drubbing to be reminded of his lowly station among the mighty of the world.

Some of the fear the Dutch inspired was due to the Republic’s tolerance—encouragement even—of religious heterodoxy.

“Is there a mongrel sect in Christendom,” complained another of Cromwell’s propagandists, “which does not croak and spawn and flourish in their Sooterkin bogs?”

[The republic] was, then, an organic menace, the “pestiduct of Europe” through whose conduits the poison of individualist skepticism might infiltrate the body politic of the European monarchies. Just as with the later, analogous anti-Semitism, Hollandophobia was possessed by a liquid terror. Commerce was the vector by it supposed the toxins of unbelief to be carried through an infinity of ducts and waterways, canals and capillaries: unstoppable, formless and lethal. 

Reeling in my—wholly synthetic—anti-Dutch sentiment, I began to notice how grievously Huis ten Bosch was fraying at the edges. Accounts from the mid-1990s zenith speak variously of 58 or 60 restaurants; by my count, from the guide map, there were only 22 left.

The still purring escalator at the World Food Plaza in Utrecht carries the unsuspecting promenader to a second floor on which not a single restaurant of the dozen or so once there remained in business: Korean Restaurant Seoul had served its last bibimbap, French Restaurant Bistro la Tour had poured its last vin rouge, and Viking Restaurant Omoyai had laid out its last buffet. Outside Tea Shop Naka no Chaya, an apologetic sign claimed that this was a temporary closure, for the purpose of refurbishment, but the gathering dust told a different story.

Another apologetic sign: this one says the Great Voyage Theater closed at the end of June, but neglects to mention the year—2008. The theater was described—and damned—by Professor Treib thus:

A nod in the direction of children is the Great Voyage Theater, large-screen film presentation of the sea voyage from Holland to Japan in the 17th century. The audience is set within a boxed area, which can jerk, shake, and shimmy in accord with the roughness of the seas and the severity of the perceived storm. These presentations are, for the most part, neither interesting nor impressive…

Down at the marina, still more restaurants had gone under, including Paella Restaurant Nueva Cataluña—poetic justice that the dish now most symbolic of the despised Spanish oppressors was no longer available (even though in the 17th century it had not yet been created). 

Yet another apologetic sign, this one in the vestibule of the Hotel Den Haag, informs passers-by that the hotel will be taking a break for a while, as if it were a resting actor between engagements, from July 1. On this occasion, the omitted year is 2009. Surely, I mused, surely the tourists can smell the must of the mildew, the stink of putrescence, the fear of failure?

As with the restaurants, so it was with the museums, which numbered around a dozen at the mid-1990s zenith and which by my measure were down to two.

The Porcelain Museum was not one of the survivors, although in this case the only way to tell was to tug at the doors. Porcelain, of course, is as Dutch as tea isn’t English, but it was the great prize of the East Asia trade in the 17th century—not initially the early Japanese porcelains, which only began to be fired years after the capture of Korean potters in the 1592-1598 invasions of the peninsula, but Chinese porcelains from the imperial kilns of Jingdezhen, and especially the blue-and-white, with its brilliantly vivid colors, hard and lustrous glazes, and the walls of the finest pieces so thin they were translucent when held up to the light. Between 1600 and 1650, Timothy Brook imparts in Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World, the ships of the VOC ferried some three million pieces of porcelain to Europe—roughly ten for every Dutch household of the day.

Kamichika chose to ignore the Dutch preference for Chinese porcelain over Japanese. A credulous Chicago Tribune correspondent, Merrill Goozner, reported on his extravagant buying sprees, reminiscent of Citizen Kane for San Simeon, in 1993:

Company President Yoshikuni Kamichika, a connoisseur of Kyushu ceramics, scoured Europe to repurchase dozens of the world’s finest examples of Imari pottery, manufactured in nearby Arita and exported to Europe from the 17th through 19th centuries.

Langedijk, a Dutch auction house, had seen its last hammer go down. It was then I realized, in an irony so beautiful that if it could take human form, it would be a catwalk model, that Huis ten Bosch, the finest efflorescence of the most massive speculative mania in history, was a tribute to the nation and the era that was home to the mother of all bubbles, the Tulipmania of 1634-1637.

Disciples of the religion of the efficient market hypothesis and followers of its Christ, homo economicus, would have you believe that Tulipmania “was no more than a meaningless winter drinking game, played by a plague-ridden population that made use of the vibrant tulip market”, as Peter Garber writes in Famous First Bubbles: The Fundamentals of Early Manias, but something strange and new to the world must have been in the air in Haarlem and the other loci of the tulip trade in the plague-wracked and fear-drenched winter of 1636-1637 to drive the price of even common or garden bulbs such as the Witte Croonen from 64 florins for half a pound in January 1637 to 1,668 florins on February 5, the very last day of the mania, and then back down to 37.5 florins in 1642.

That the world’s first bubble should have been in the humble tulip strikes the modern eye as ridiculous, but tulips were still an exotic novelty in 1637, having arrived in Europe from Turkey only in 1559 and in the United Provinces only in 1593. At first the tulip was an aristocrat among flowers, the most prized cultivars being multihued “breaks”, the result of infection with an aphid-spread tulip-specific mosaic virus not then understood at all, with the prince among them the fabled Semper Augustus,

already selling for 1,000 florins a bulb by 1623, when a skilled artisan might hope to take home 200 florins a year. Soon the tulip was being associated with worldly folly: Amsterdam merchant and moralist Roemer Visscher used tulips to illustrate the epigram “a fool and his money are soon parted” in his Sinepoppen (Dolls for the Spirit) as early as 1614.

A confluence of factors conspired to cause Tulipmania, chief among them perhaps the advent of the world’s first sophisticated financial markets. Almost as soon as the Amsterdam Stock Exchange had been established, speculators were conducting organized bear raids, short selling the stock and spreading malicious rumors about the health of the company, and dealing in shares not in the possession of the seller, an act known as windhandel or “trading the wind”. Tulip bulbs themselves are only out of the ground between June and October; Tulipmania revolved largely around contracts for future delivery in what was one of the first formalized futures markets. With tulips needing seven years from seed to flowering bulb, there had been time for six tulip harvests between 1593 and 1634, increasing supply and variety, abetted in the early 1630s, narrates Simon Schama, by a “second generation of horticulturalists [with] aggressively entrepreneurial ambitions”. Trading innovations in the tulip market such as bulk weight contracts severed the link between prices and specific bulbs, reducing the level of expertise required to participate. More generally, trade was flourishing and there had been a huge increase in the supply of coin and bullion in the years leading up to the mania. Bubonic plague may have played a walk-on role, too, by spreading indifference to fate in the face of death: the plague took a third of the population of Leiden in 1635 and a fifth of the population in Haarlem between August and November 1636, just as tulip prices began their astronomical ascent.

As with many subsequent bubbles, a premonitory crash occurred in October 1636, which Earl Thompson, in Tulipmania, Fact or Artifact, ascribes to the victory of the Swedish alliance over the Imperial alliance at Wittstock October 4, 1636, in the Thirty Years’ War, reversing the fortunes of the German states, important tulip consumers—but perhaps it was merely due to the Mark Twain effect

Soon tulip prices were setting fresh highs, though, with a Semper Augustus now fetching 4,600 florins and a coach and dapple gray pair, worth around 2,000 florins alone.

A. Maurits van der Veen, in The Dutch Tulip Mania: The Social Politics of a Financial Bubble, tells of the auguries of collapse:

Things went sour in Haarlem first, on February 3. … Members of a college [groups of traders who met at taverns] decided to test market confidence by putting up for sale amongst themselves bulk quantities of common tulips—Switsers or Croonen. Just one buyer made any bids in three successive sales, and each of the sellers accepted his offer, even though the sum he offered was successively 15% below, 25% below, and finally 35% below recent prices for comparable bulbs. News of this precipitous drop in prices spread like wildfire throughout town, and the next day trading came to a complete halt, with traders simply staring at one another in stunned silence.

By the weekend of February 7-8, 1637, Tulipmania was over: the dearth of price data for the following weeks and months suggests that much of the market had simply evaporated. That the crash did not cause general suffering was due to the localized nature of the mania, which only involved a few hundred collegians, and an orderly resolution in which the futures contracts were converted to options contracts, relieving buyers of the unconditional obligation to buy the future tulips, with the option price eventually set at 3.5% for November 30, 1636 onward.

Inevitably, Tulipmania was followed by tulip-phobia. Anna Pavord, in The Tulip, writes of an unnamed professor of botany at Leiden, who “grew so to loathe them that he attacked them savagely wherever they stood, thwacking them with his cane”. Satirists of every stripe, from pamphleteer to printmaker, went swiftly to work.

In painter Hendrik Pots’ Floraes Mallewagen (Flora’s Car of Fools), Flora, dressed as a courtesan, clasps a cornucopia of tulips in one hand and three prized blooms, Semper Augustus, General Bol, and Admiral van Hoorn, in her other. Attending her are a trio of florists in jester’s costumes festooned with tulips, one brandishing his moneybags and another drinking to the gullible. A jester’s cap decorates the flag at the back of wind-chariot, while tacked to the mast of the chariot is the flag of the kermis festival, the verkeerde wereld, the world turned upside down, with an inverted cross attached to a globe. One woman weighs bulbs as the other, dubbed on a later print Idle Hope, releases a bird, Idle Hope Flown Away, while at the rear of the chariot burgers trample their looms, symbols of honest toil, and beg to be let on board as out in the shallows the wreck of the mania is foretold by a crew deserting their foundering chariot.

But we have strayed, I am well aware, far from Huis ten Bosch. Somehow I found myself down at the dockside, not thinking of the old days of Liverpool and Rotherhithe, but of the even older days of Bakumatsu end-of-shogunate hero Ryoma Sakamoto (1836-1867)—for it was he in the cutout. Japan was going through one of its episodic infatuations with all things Ryoma, this time occasioned by Ryomaden (The Legend of Ryoma), the 49th Sunday night Taiga Drama serial on state-run TV broadcaster NHK that ran through most of 2010, and Huis ten Bosch was piggybacking the boom, with an exhibition for which they wanted an additional Y500 ($6.50) on top of the Y4,700 ($57) I had already forked out for my tokutoku special value ticket. The tenuous connection between Ryoma and Huis ten Bosch is the ship in the background: Ryoma is considered the founder of the Imperial Japanese Navy and the ship, a three-mast paddlewheel schooner, is a 1987 replica of Japan’s first steam warship, Soembing, gifted by the Dutch in 1855 and renamed Kanko Maru (観光丸) after a line in the I Ching, kankoku shi ko (觀國之光, to view the light of the country), which also happens to be the origin of the word tourism (kanko, 観光) in Japanese, although not, oddly enough, in Chinese. Ryoma, visionary modernizer and unifier though he may have been, cuts too parochial a figure to be the savior of Huis ten Bosch: whatever could the Chinese tourists have made of the cutout?

(to be continued)

Huis ten Bosch: Only Miffy can save us now

(part one of three)

“By God,” says he, “I think the Devil shits Dutchmen.”

Sir William Batten, Surveyor of the Navy, in response to Dutch mopping-up operations along the length of the English coast in the aftermath of the Republic’s triumphant Raid on the Medway in the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667), quoted in Samuel Pepys’ diary entry for 19th July, 1667 

Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.

Charles MacKay, preface to the 1852 edition of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds

 

So…

Picture the scene: you’re on Family Feud (US) or Family Fortunes (UK), and the oily host summons you to go head-to-head with a member of the opposing family. “Hands on the buzzers, please. Top eight answers in this round. We asked 100 people…to name something associated with Holland.”

Suppress lewd thoughts of red-light districts, window brothels, and sex clubs—this is a family show—and quick, the buzzer!

Canals

Tulips

Clogs

Windmills

Cheese

Dykes

Bicycles

Cows

And that, in essence, is Huis ten Bosch, a $3bn theme park answer to a quiz show question nobody asked.

Monumental in its conception, extravagant in its execution, and epic in its failure, Huis ten Bosch is the greatest by far of all of the progeny of Japan’s Bubble era dreams.

Sprawling as it does over 152 hectares (375 acres) of Omura Bay shoreline in the western Nagasaki Prefecture city of Sasebo, the park is more than three times the size of Tokyo Disneyland and still bigger than Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea combined, awing the resident-visitor of these cramped lands with its sheer scale. Add in the 250 holiday homes in the 50-hectare Wassenaar zone, named after a chic suburb of The Hague, and the entire development is roughly the size of the Principality of Monaco. A 5km stretch of highway and the administrative district Huis ten Bosch occupies have been named after it, as has a station on the Omura line, seen here with the gargantuan 330-bedroom ANA Hotel (where I stayed) in the background.

So vast are the lands on which Huis ten Bosch lies it even has its own gas station within the park precincts, to serve the fleet of archly retro vehicles that ply its streets—one model, the Subaru Sambar Classic, was developed just for the park and later offered to the public.

The best place from which to gasp in marvel at the audacity of Huis ten Bosch is the 80m high observation deck of the almost facsimile replica of the Domtoren of Utrecht, at 112.5m the tallest church tower in the Netherlands.

At 105m, Huis ten Bosch’s Domtoren was when erected the tallest building in the prefecture, and for now remains its single tallest structure.

From the Domtoren looking north, with in the foreground the 328-room Hotel Europa, the setting for director Juzo Itami’s 1992 yakuza satire, Minbo: the Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion, for which he was beaten and slashed by three hoodlums just days after the movie opened and may, in 1997, have paid with his life in a mobster murder dressed as suicide. In the background to the left is the mothballed 228-room Hotel Den Haag, while in the background to the right, above the 105 low-slung grey rental villas of the Forest Park, is Paleis Huis ten Bosch (“house” “ten”, “boss”, “House in the Woods”), a near carbon copy of one of the four official residences of the Dutch monarchy and home to Her Majesty Beatrix, by the Grace of God Queen of the Netherlands.

From the Domtoren looking west into the Binnenstad district of Amsterdam, with Prince Willem Alexander Square, named after the current Prince of Orange and heir apparent to the Dutch throne, in the foreground, and the 202-room Hotel Amsterdam housed in the quadrangle to the right.

From the Domtoren looking southwest, with the shopping malls of Binnenstad in the foreground, the amusement quarter of Nieuwstad in the center, the windmills of Kinderdijk back and to the left, and in the top left corner the ANA Hotel, which lies just outside the park.

From the Domtoren looking south, with the ANA Hotel now top right. In the foreground are the ornamental flower gardens of Friesland, so named perhaps because, as with the real Friesland, there’s not much going on. Center picture is the Japan Racing Association’s off-course betting emporia, WINS Sasebo, modeled—externally at least—after the Amsterdam Concertgebouw and only opened in 2002. Back left in cream with a gray mansard roof is the 388-room Hotel Nikko, also outside the park. That completes our tour of the hotels of Huis ten Bosch, which all told have nearly 1,500 rooms.

Before we descend to earth to sample the delights of Huis ten Bosch close up, some back-story is called for. There are two back-stories, actually, the deep one and the shallow one. The deep one begins in the year 1600.

The first decade of the 17th century was a momentous one for a small waterlogged republic on the northwest fringe of continental Europe struggling to free itself from the Iberian yoke. It began with the routing of Spanish pikemen by the Dutch infantry in the Battle of Nieuwpoort on July 2, 1600, and ended with Spain’s de facto recognition of the Dutch Republic as a sovereign state in the Twelve Years’ Truce, signed in Antwerp on April 9, 1609.

Three events that were to prove pivotal in the evolution of capitalism and globalization were packed into the decade. The first was the foundation of the Dutch East India Company, the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), the world’s first large joint-stock corporation and arguably its first multinational enterprise, in 1602. The second was the foundation, in the same year, by the VOC, of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, the world’s first securities bourse. The third was the world’s first formulation, by Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius in The Free Sea (Mare Liberum, 1609) of the principle of free trade, in this case on the international territory of the sea.

In Asia, the Dutch were pushing east, seizing the Spice Islands, now Maluku, from the Portuguese in 1605, and establishing their first permanent trading post in Southeast Asia at Bantam in western Java in 1609. On April 19, 1600, Dutch merchant vessel de Liefde (Charity) made landfall on Kyushu, the only one of a convoy of five ships that set sail from Rotterdam in the summer of 1598 to reach its destination, with only 24 of its crew of 110 still alive. Among the half dozen of them still able to stand were the first Dutchmen to set foot in Japan, including Jan Joosten van Lodensteijn, the second mate, who has given his (corrupted) name to the Yaesu side of Tokyo station, and Jacob Quaeckernaeck, the captain, as well as Will Adams, the English pilot, who inspired James Clavell’s Shogun.

Will Adams may have won fame, at least in the English-speaking world, as the “white samurai”, but as so often in those days, the Dutch engineered the commercial edge, establishing a trading factory on the island of Hirado to the north of Nagasaki in September 1609. In 1641, the Dutch were forced to move to an artificial fan-shaped island, Dejima, measuring just 120m by 75m, off Nagasaki, that had been reclaimed from the sea in 1636 for the Portuguese, who were expelled in 1639. And there the Dutch stayed for more than two centuries, Japan’s only window to the West.

What the Dutch wanted more than anything was the product of Japan’s silver mines, to grease the Asian trade and to compensate for the waning output of the great silver mountain, Cerro Rico, at Potosí in the Viceroyalty of Peru, and for almost three decades they got what they wanted, until the export of silver was banned by the shogunate in 1668, which was instrumental in the long, slow eclipse of the VOC in Asia. The Japan concession dwindled away into a backwater: only 600 or so Dutch ships put in at Dejima between 1641 and 1857, about the same number that could be seen dans le port d’Amsterdam on any afternoon in the mid-17th century.

Ultimately Dejima became much more significant for hosts than the hosted, as the sole conduit for Dutch Studies (Rangaku, 蘭学), the learning of the West, and I’m sure that today, Dejima occupies a far larger place in the Japanese consciousness than it does in the Dutch one. Only the other night I was flicking through the channels when I came across a docudrama about German botanist Philipp Franz von Siebold (1796-1866), who was appointed as the resident Dejima physician in 1823 and who is barely known outside these isles.

That then is the—brutally abridged—deep back-story. The shallow back-story starts in summer 1979, with a vacation taken by a man born a nobody, Yoshikuni Kamichika (神近義邦). It’s invidious to transliterate Japanese names, particularly in the back-to-front, given-name-first order in which they appear in English, but this one is too delicious to resist: “Good country, close to God”. Exactly the sentiments of a Calvinist Dutch burgher of the 17th century toward his homeland.

Kamichika was born into poverty in 1942 in Seihi, a small town just south of Sasebo, which had fewer than 10,000 souls when in 2005 it was wiped from the map through a municipal merger. After graduating in 1962 from the local agricultural high school while working to support his family, he took up a post in the town hall, where he stayed for a decade, building a chrysanthemum nursery on the side. In the early 1970s, a high-end ryotei restaurant, Ichijo, catering to politicians in Tokyo’s political nerve-center of Nagatacho, surreptitiously cornered 550,000m2 of Seihi land on which to build, among other things, a love hotel, causing consternation in the town. The ryotei, however, collapsed in the wake of the 1973 Oil Crisis and, via a plot too convoluted to detail here, Kamichika ended up its general manager, catapulted from a provincial backwater to the very epicenter of power, and succeeded in turning the restaurant around.

On a busman’s holiday in the Mediterranean in 1979, so the legend goes, Kamichika and his businessman travelling companion, the president of the real estate division of ball-bearing maker Minebea (slogan: Passion is POWER, Passion is SPEED, Passion is the FUTURE), are surveying a shimmering seascape when his companion turns to him and asks:

“Is there a sea like this in all Japan?”

So many consequences were to flow from such a simple question.

“Yes,” Kamichika is reported to have replied vehemently, “the marvelous sea of Omura Bay in Nagasaki, where I was born and raised. It’s every bit as good as the Mediterranean. Why can’t we get people to visit it, just like the Mediterranean?”

Omura Bay, in places flanked by scrubbed hillsides of citrus groves tumbling to the water’s edge, does indeed occasionally have a Mediterranean feel.

On the plane home, Kamichika scribbled away making notes, as the idea for the precursor to Huis ten Bosch took shape in his mind. Enlisting the support of a few local enterprises and architect and president of major design firm Nihon Sekkei, Takekuni Ikeda, who had fallen in love with Omura Bay in the Second World War, Kamichika refurbished and expanded a fish restaurant in his hometown of Seihi and on July 22, 1983, Nagasaki Holland Village, initially not much more than a scrawny assortment of windmills, piers, and shops on a dozen hectares that had cost perhaps $10mn to build, welcomed its first visitors. The vision, as articulated by Kamichika, was to faithfully replicate a townscape of the Netherlands, with its deep ties to Nagasaki, down to the last cobblestone. The timing was propitious: Tokyo Disneyland had opened just three months before and soon an expanded Nagasaki Holland Village was being dubbed by the media “the Disneyland of the West”.

Emboldened by success—at its 1990 peak, Nagasaki Holland Village attracted 2mn visitors—in 1988 Kamichika began planning something a tad more ambitious: Huis ten Bosch. It was the Bubble; anything was possible. Six kilometers of canals, 3.2km of underground tunnels for the communications, energy, and water infrastructure, 400,000 trees, and 300,000 flowers and shrubs—sure, why not? Kamichika took his plans to the bankers and the bankers liked what they saw.

The bankers were led by the blue-blooded, white-shoed, and blue-chip Industrial Bank of Japan (IBJ), which in the heady high growth days of 1950s and 1960s had been a key mover and shaker in the reflorescence of war-ravaged heavy industry and which chipped in a cool $1bn. This was not by any measure the rashest Bubble loan extended by the IBJ: that prize must surely go to the Y240mn ($1.7bn as of January 1990) or so it lent to Nui Onoue (尾上縫), the Bubble Lady of Osaka, whose tale, the darkest and strangest of all the Bubble threw up, deserves a brief diversion.

The story kicks off in 1987 when then 57-year old spinster Onoue walked into the IBJ Osaka branch and began buying up huge quantities of IBJ debentures. Everything about Onoue is enveloped in mystery. She may be from, or have close links with, the burakumin underclass. It seems certain she was born, like Kamichika, in poverty and worked for a while as a waitress—or was it as a hostess?—before acquiring a couple of restaurants—or was she set up in them by a shadowy backer?—in the late 1960s in a sordid Osaka entertainment district. Some say the source of her seed money for the IBJ debentures, of which she eventually amassed Y290bn (just over $2bn), was a scion of the Matsushita electronics empire, some say the mob, some say a construction magnate. By the late 1980s, she had gained notoriety as the biggest speculator on the Tokyo stock market, and late at night scores of black limousines would park up outside one of her restaurants, Egawa, disgorging bankers for séances, inspired by esoteric mikkyo Buddhism, on the fourth floor, overseen by a giant ceramic toad standing a meter tall. In Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan, Alex Kerr reports (probably unreliably but undoubtedly entertainingly) the ritual thus:

Department chiefs from IBJ’s Tokyo headquarters would take the bullet train down from Tokyo to Osaka in order to attend a weekly ceremony presided over by the toad. On arriving at Nui’s house, the IBJ bankers would join elite stockbrokers from Yamaichi Securities and other trading houses in a midnight vigil. First they would pat the head of the toad. Then they would recite prayers in front of a set of Buddhist statues in Nui’s garden. Finally Madame Nui would seat herself in front of the toad, go into a trance, and deliver the oracle—which stocks to buy and which to sell. The financial markets in Tokyo trembled at the verdict. At his peak in 1990, the toad controlled more than $10bn in financial instruments, making its owner the world’s largest individual stock investor.

Onoue’s game—or that of the pullers of her puppet strings—appears to have been a house of straw built on the shifting sands of leverage and ever-rising stock prices, and as the Nikkei halved in the tumultuous first ten months of 1990, it came crashing down. By April 1991, she had resorted to using to crudely forged certificates of deposit with a face value of Y340bn ($2.4bn) from a tiny credit union, Toyo Shinkin, which had total deposits of a mere Y360bn ($2.5bn), to liberate her IBJ debentures from the bank’s own vaults so as to borrow more elsewhere. By the time of her August 1991 arrest, Onoue had stacked up a scarcely credible Y2.8trn ($19.4bn) in borrowings, eventually going bust with net debts of some Y430bn ($3bn) in the nation’s largest ever personal bankruptcy and bringing down Toyo Shinkin, another credit union, and the management of the IBJ with her. The IBJ, which at its peak was valued at $63bn, nearly twenty times the market capitalization of Wall Street’s Morgan Stanley, never recovered from its Bubble excesses and was swallowed up in 2002 in the merger that created Mizuho Financial Group—which became the main bank of Huis ten Bosch.

Onoue’s trial began in 1997, with the prosecutors baying for 15 years. Her lawyers cited an alleged IQ of 84 and claimed she could add and subtract, but not multiply or divide. She was sentenced to 12 years in 1998, a sentence not finalized by the Supreme Court until April 2003, fully 15 years after she first walked into the IBJ branch and 12 years after her arrest. Justice delayed is justice denied, and whoever spoke through the toad—my super-sleuth source believes it was the IBJ itself—we can be reasonably confident it wasn’t Onoue. It’s hard to see her as anything other than a sacrificial victim slaughtered on an altar to appease the gods of the Bubble.

While the tale of the Bubble Lady of Osaka was unfolding, the diggers, cranes, and dredgers were sculpting Huis ten Bosch out of a failed industrial park. Kamichika’s vision was breathtaking, some might say Pharonic: Huis ten Bosch was to be no ordinary theme park, but a resort city, a prototype community along the lines of Disney’s EPCOT, a future world, albeit one looking Janus-like to the past, too. Architecture professor Marc Treib, in an essay titled Theme park, themed living: The Case of Huis ten Bosch (published in 2002 but based on a 1995 visit), commented:

In fact, it is management’s hope—and intention—that when the massive construction debt has been amortized [sic] in about 20 years, the admission charge will be dropped completely. By that time, a community planned on Dutch lines will have developed incrementally around today’s theme park center; what had been a zone controlled by restrictive admission will have become the thriving city center of a new town on Omura Bay.

In an (undated) interview with photojournalist Graeme Simmons, Kamichika made it clear that Huis ten Bosch was not an end in itself, but merely the babysteps of a far grander march:

“My idea is to create a whole series of towns around Omura Bay”, he says, “Using the themes of water and greenery”. The next step, he says, is a Japanese Heritage Village, to remind visitors of their culture. Also on the agenda is a full-scale replica of Monaco itself.

In an interview with LA Times journalist Margaret Scott for a November 1993 article, The World According to Japan, the timescale on which Kamichika was dreaming was one measured not in years but decades and centuries:  

As Kamichika put it, “This will not always be a country of worker bees. What will be the main industry for the next 50 years? Leisure.”

Eventually, Kamichika says, he wants Huis ten Bosch to be about more than the allure of the exotic; he wants to make the exotic familiar. His idea is to have 100,000 people living along the canals by the sea. Already, a small settlement of 250 Dutch-style houses, with shuttered windows and steep alpine [sic] roofs, has gone up.

“We are selling life here—we are introducing Japanese to a new way of living,” he says. “Kyoto was modeled on a Chinese city 1,000 years ago. And now it is considered to be the most pure, most truly Japanese of all our cities. After 1,000 years, Huis ten Bosch is going to be just like Kyoto—the standard of a typical Japanese city.”

Even the normally skeptical leftist academic, Gavan McCormack, writing in The Emptiness of Japanese Affluence (1996), was seduced by Kamichika’s vision:

Its founders claim that it is being built to last 1,000 years, and that, as the building of the city of Kyoto in the eighth century was modeled on that of T’ang China’s capital at Ch’ang-an so, in the future, Huis ten Bosch may be come to seen as the first type of postindustrial urban development, drawing upon European models but certainly no more Dutch than Kyoto is Chinese, and creating in the process a city that Dutch people can only look upon with astonishment.

What the whole project represents is still hard to say, but the claim to be pioneering ecological town planning, with emphasis on the needs of the coming “aging and leisure-oriented society of the 21st century,” is not easily dismissed. … It has been enormously expensive to build, but will leave something much more solid and interesting than other resorts. It has also been successful…

Huis ten Bosch opened, with atrociously impeccable timing, on March 25, 1992, as Japan was sliding into its first post-Bubble recession. In the LA Times article referenced above, Kunio Seiki, a managing director of IBJ, lauded Kamichika as “a visionary who also has an abacus for a brain”. If so, it was an abacus with a few beads missing. The target—never met—was for 5mn visitors a year. In its first full year of operation (the fiscal year to March 31, 1993 [FY3/93]), Huis ten Bosch pulled in only 3.75mn visitors, but it was nevertheless for a few glorious years in the middle of the decade possible to be persuaded that the theme park had been a success, as visitor numbers rose to peak at 4.25mn in FY3/97. Then the long, slow slide set in. By FY3/01, the visitor count was back to 3.76mn, where it had been the opening year, and in June 2000 Kamichika stepped down as CEO as the theme park pled for Y20bn ($187mn) in debt forgiveness from the IBJ. It retuned with cap in hand in autumn 2001, pleading for another Y33bn to be forgiven, but this was not enough and on February 26, 2003, Huis ten Bosch, never having come close to the sweet scent of black ink, applied for court protection from its creditors under the Corporate Rehabilitation Law with debts of Y229bn ($1.9bn), an event that made the national news and attracted the wistful comment of future Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, then Chief Cabinet Secretary: “I want the theme park to revive itself into a healthy company and entertain many Japanese people.” The following year, FY3/04, visitor numbers collapsed to just 2.15mn, as fickle tourists, alarmed by the bankruptcy, steered clear in droves. Kamichika’s dream was in shreds.

Nagasaki Holland Village, which had been operating in the shadow of its big brother since 1992, giving Nagasaki two Dutch theme parks a couple of dozen kilometers from each other, saw annual visitor numbers tumble to 220,000 in FY3/01 from the 2mn FY3/91 peak and closed its doors for good in October 2001. An effort was made to turn it into a food theme park, Cas Village, in 2005, but that ended in failure in just six months. By 2009, Nagasaki Holland Village was a moldering carcass savaged by termites (video here). Then in a supreme irony, one in which the story of Huis ten Bosch abounds, the city of Saiki, into which Kamichika’s birthplace of Seihi had been merged in 2005, voted in September 2009 to spend Y156mn ($1.7mn) restoring part of the park to house the Seihi municipal offices, where Kamichika had started out.

On approaching the Huis ten Bosch admission gates from the south, the visitor first passes the prototype community of Wassenaar.

Author Kyoichi Tsuzuki, in Baburu no Shozo: The Many Faces of Bubble, relates that the 250 elegant villas of Wassenaar were integral to Huis ten Bosch’s repayment of its monstrous debt. The goal was to sell all the villas, priced at a modest Y100mn-Y400mn ($1.5mn-$6mn), before the park opened, but only 10% found buyers, and by 2001, a decade after they had been erected, half remained unsold. Finally, their prices were knocked down by a half to two-thirds, and in 2004 the last one was offloaded. Tsuzuki remarks that the wasei (Japanese-made) Wassenaar looks like a movie set, and indeed it does: the set of The Truman Show. What struck this observer most, though, is an absence: the absence of the visual cacophony that is the Japanese street. Where were the half-abandoned bicycles, where were the ramshackle gantries for laundry, where, for our Pete’s sweet sake, where were the wires? While Wassenaar may have been conceived as a prototype community, most of the properties are besso holiday homes or time-shares and access is restricted to owners and their guests. By day there is barely a flicker of life and by night the few houselights that flip on and off smack of programmable timers.

Following the bankruptcy, a beauty contest was held by the courts to select a sponsor. Foreign private equity houses such as Ripplewood, dubbed chauvinistically and misleadingly in Japanese as “vulture funds”, circled the twitching corpse of the theme park, but to no one’s particular surprise, a homegrown suitor was deemed to be the most attractive, and in December 2003 Nomura Principal Finance, pledging an Y11bn ($100mn) investment, took over. Nomura tried various tricks to turn Huis ten Bosch around, among them the construction of a wedding chapel, White Symphony, and poured another Y10bn ($85mn) into the park in 2006, managing to keep visitor numbers above the 2mn mark until the financial crisis hit, when they sank to 1.87mn in FY3/09 and 1.41mn in FY3/10. In July 2009, the park still never having made a penny of profit, Nomura threw in the linen towel and a frantic quest for a new sponsor—for Huis ten Bosch should not, could not, must not be allowed to die—began, and in February 2010 travel agency H.I.S. (slogan: Love, Peace, TRAVEL), was chosen, in a very generous deal—a measure of the general desperation—that gives it Y900mn ($10mn) annually in tax breaks and the right to walk away after three years.

(to be continued…)

Phoenix Seagaia: Look on my works, ye Mighty

Heading north out of the eponymous prefectural capital of Miyazaki, the traveler soon finds the flotsam of modern life giving way to a more manicured world, one of trim box hedges, pansied plant troughs, and sedately whispering pines. Then from out of nowhere, there it looms, the loneliest skyscraper on earth.

 

Skyscrapers are by nature gregarious animals, to be found in dense hordes in city centers, in tight packs around the watering holes of international airports, and in majestic ranks along the beaches of a Benidorm or an Acapulco. They are even known to breed in small numbers in that most inhospitable of habitats, the antique European capital. But this skyscraper had been expelled from the herd and condemned to eternal exile in a prison of pines. 

For a decade after it was topped out in 1994, the 154m, 45 storey Sheraton Grande Ocean Resort—as it is now known—was the tallest building between Osaka and Taipei. It remains the tallest building in Japan west of Hiroshima and its nearest 100m plus companion is 150km to the north, in Oita. What a lonesome existence it must be, the life of a solitary skyscraper. 

At the Sheraton reception, it took several hundred keystrokes, a couple of phone calls, and a quarter of an hour to summon up the price of a single. “Y19,200,” (about $230) was the oddly precise answer. “Fine.” Picking up a resort map (“let’s design the you from tomorrow”, it said in Japanese), I made it to the 12th floor room in time to capture a Seagaia sunset, the lone and level pines stretching far away. 

 

The unfunny pun and bloky jokiness of the message on the plastic wrapping on the bathroom sponge—“Get yourself all in a lather”—and the enormous condescension of the instructions—“Just add shower gel”—brought on a grimace, although with the words only in English and French (“Enrobez-vous de mousse”), the nuances of the patter would be fortunately lost on almost every guest. 

I made a beeline for the top-of-the-tower 42nd floor bar, Stella, to snatch a sundowner, but a sign declared that it was closed due to that most embracing of catch-alls, tsugo (“circumstances”). Turning tail, I headed for the first floor cocktail bar, Pacifica, and settled in on a sofa for the long haul. 

An Australian lounge bar duo, Kishh, were tuning up and threatening schmaltz. Was that a spelling mistake, I wondered to myself. Shouldn’t it have been Kitschh? While navigating the drinks menu for ways to keep the tab below $100, I pondered ways of escape, but there were no other bars left in which to hide. Teeth grated, I braced myself for the first set, which went like this:

Sheryl Crow, If it makes you happy

Toto, Georgy Porgy/Africa

Roberta Flack, Killing me softly with his song

Olivia Newton-John, Have you never been mellow

The Carpenters, Close to you

Abba, Chiquitita

Carole King, It’s too late 

They knew their audience, full credit for that. ONJ’s Have you never been mellow was a 1975 flop around the world but a hit here. The heavily tattooed Mandy and Michael joined me for a drink between sets. 

“I’ve heard Killing me softly before, you know.”

“Tell me about it,” Mandy guffawed. “Thing is, when people here latch on to something, they never let it go. I mean, Abba, Whitney Houston, The Carpenters. Imagine playing The Carpenters to anyone under 60 back home!”

“This is our fifth six-month contract at Seagaia,” Michael said. “We love it here—open your window and you’ve got a fresh breeze coming in off the sea. We’ve played all over Japan, Chiba-chuo, Narita, but this is the best.”

He let slip that Seagaia had been hit hard by the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease ravaging the prefecture, which had brought the shutters down on several eateries as well as “top bar” Stella.

“Tonight’s the busiest it’s been in months. This bar is the only place that’s making any money, apart from the breakfast restaurant.”

“Any requests”, asked Mandy as they prepared to take the stage for their second set.

“Got any Motorhead?” 

It turned into a lively enough Saturday night: a woman in tight denim shorts for which, despite her lithe figure, she was a touch too old, partied like it was 1989, dancing on a tabletop as if the Bubble had never popped. A party of minor-league rock stars and their groupies swilled champagne and guzzled cocktails at the table next door. Eventually one of their number asked drunken unsociable me in fractured English where I was from. I played my cruelest card. “I’m from the UK.” So simple yet so devastating, it floors the enquirer every time.

With all respect to the charming and competent Mandy and Michael, when Seagaia opened it was able to attract a different league of celebrity: Sting played the opening night concert on October 31, 1994. He also recorded a couple of TV commercials for Seagaia, ones that a definitely older and perhaps wiser Gordon Sumner almost certainly doesn’t want you to see today.

“OK Miyadzaki, let’s go,” exclaims the prickingly monikered one as he leaves his palatial country estate to his tune, Take me to the sunshine, written specifically for Seagaia, as the voiceover intones, “Our first guest is Sting. A resort of sun has been born. Miyazaki Seagaia.” 

In the second, a sleep refreshed Sting throws open his windows with a hale “Good morning, Seagaia,” to the chords of When we dance. The narrator continues, “A place abounding in sea, wide open spaces, and sun. Book now and relax big time. Miyazaki Seagaia, a global resort of sun,” leaving Sting to sign off with “Miyadzaki, I love it!” 

Dubiously reliable muckraking hack Christopher Sandford reports that Sting was paid around £500,000 for the Seagaia deal, which if true, works out to almost £50,000 a word, two out of the eleven of which he cheerfully mangles. (Although it is not beyond the realms of chance that he was told to mangle them, for that deftly clunky foreign touch.) 

There’s a national penchant for counting things in trios, the “Three Greats” (三大). Wikipedia lists 242 examples, ranging from the familiar, such as the three great gardens or the three great night views and the now obscure, such as the three great brushes of the Kan’ei era (1624-1643) and the three great centers of child kabuki actors, to the prosaic, such as the three great garbage bands (you read that right) of Kanto and the three great centers of seven-flavored pepper condiments. 

There is no listing, however, for the Three Great Structural Legacies of the Bubble (三大バブルの構造物遺産). With so much competition, one of the three is tricky to pick: could it be the absurd 158m Play Park Gold Tower in the tiny town of Utazu on the Inland Sea, with its gold throne and gold toilet slippers, the ridiculous recreation of a French chateau in the heart of Tokyo, Taillevent Robuchon, or the risible mock-medieval Hotel Kawakyu on the remotest tip of the Kii Peninsula? Two are shoo-ins, however: Dutch theme park Huis ten Bosch and Seagaia.

Desperate to regain the tourist luster it had lost since its days in the limelight as the locus of the honeymoon boom of the 1960s, the Miyazaki prefectural and city governments, spearheaded by six-term (1979-2003) governor Suketaka Matsukata (1918-2007), teamed up in 1988 with local travel and leisure firm Phoenix International Tourism and its president, Muneyoshi Sato (1919-), to begin planning Seagaia, the very first project approved under the notorious Resort Law of 1987, which offered tax breaks, flexible approval procedures, and—disastrously—easy financing from state-backed banks to resort plans that met with the blessing of the government.     

A prime spot on the coast north of Miyazaki was selected and 135 hectares (335 acres) of state-owned pine forest that had been planted as a windbreak on the sandy shores before the war was sold to the Phoenix Resort Group at a knock-down price. Garlanded modernist architect Yoshinobu Ashihara (1918-2003) drew up the plans, and with an initial budget of Y80bn (about $1.1bn at the time), construction of Seagaia—which for starters necessitated the uprooting of 100,000 pines—got underway in 1989. 

The sheer scale and audacity of the vision was—and remains—breathtaking: in addition to the centerpiece hotel, Ocean 45, which was to become the Sheraton, Seagaia was finally to be graced with three other hotel complexes, two 18-hole country clubs, a golf academy, a tennis club, an onsen, a spa, a marina, a bowling alley, a zoo, a world-class convention center, and last but very much not least, Ocean Dome. 

When it opened in advance of Ocean 45 in July 1993, Ocean Dome was a repository of superlatives: the world’s largest indoor pool, with a 140m long beach, featuring the world’s largest retractable dome, at 300m by 100m, and the world’s largest and most sophisticated wave-making equipment. The real beach was only 500m away, but how could cantankerous reality compete with the seductions of the hyperreal, a temperature-controlled, Caribbean-themed paradise where the water was maintained at a constant 28°c and the air at 30°c, where the “sea” had been purged of its saltiness and there were surf juggler shows, synchronized swimming spectaculars, and amusement arcades to keep boredom at bay? Mere sand, so humdrum, could not have been expected to satisfy the dictates of the hyperreal, although it could have been sourced from anywhere; instead, the beach was made of marble, imported from China and crushed to powder. 

Ocean Dome reached the apex of the hyperreal when the wave machines were cranked up and stoner surfer dudes were given free rein to frolic. Pinch yourself sporadically as you watch the following to recall that it all plays out indoors.

By the time Seagaia opened to the strains of Sting, the bill had spiraled north of Y200bn ($2.5bn) and it needed 5mn visitors a year—nearly 15,000 a day—to break even. At first, the planes to Miyazaki were crowded with pilgrims, but the prices were prohibitive: admission to Ocean Dome cost Y4,200 ($50) for an adult, more than Tokyo Disneyland, and a two-night trip for a family of four could easily eat up Y400,000 ($5,000). Not much support could come from the locals, either, in Japan’s poorest mainland prefecture, and from the outset Seagaia was losing around Y20bn ($250mn) a year. In February 2001, Seagaia collapsed under the weight of an accumulated Y326bn (nearly $4bn) in liabilities. The press conference following the bankruptcy filing was a battle of the octogenarians, with the businessman Sato (81) heaping the blame on himself and the governor Matsukata (83) washing his hands of all responsibility. 

The notoriety of Seagaia was now such that only foreigners were to be found sniffing around its corpse, and in June 2001 it was sold for just Y16.2bn ($200mn) to US private equity outfit Ripplewood Holdings, whose founder and CEO Tim Collins claimed the price was “reasonable”. Ripplewood set about restructuring: one of the early victims, in December 2002, was the Tom Watson golf course. 

 

Down to the last purple swirl on the carpet, the clubhouse interior was an insect preserved in amber.

 

Colors at the Seagaia Tennis Club had been bleached and washed out. Depth of perspective had been drained from the scene, like a David Hockney painting of California.

 

Ocean Dome first shut its doors from October 2002 until the following summer, before closing for good in September 2007. In December 2009, Ripplewood offered it to the city and the prefecture for free, but in August 2010 they spurned the offer, citing the crippling expense of maintenance and repair. 

Is there anything more sinister, I asked myself, than an abandoned multistory car park?

 

Yes, plenty, came the answer swiftly: a bank of vending machines was still dispensing drinks to no one at all. Then there was the bus parking lot, which had been taken over by the prefectural riot police.

  

Were they expecting an outbreak of mutinous assembly and disorderly conduct at the 19th hole?

Ocean Dome was a stupendous structure by any measure, a geometrician’s heaven and a photographer’s dream. In marvel I wandered past its vast and trunkless legs of stone and sauntered round the decay of its colossal wreck.

Back at the Sheraton, the aerial approach road struck me as the embodiment in concrete of an elephant in white.

 

Few conferences have gathered at the World Convention Center, with its main hall able to hold 5,000 people, since a G8 summit in 2000; this Sunday, it was largely given over to wedding ceremonies.   

 

The aesthetic spirit of Seagaia is that of the country club and the golf course, of palm and pine and gin and Jag, of Beverly Hills and the Home Counties, with a dash of Bauhaus Modernism and just a drizzle of Albert Speer.

The illusion of affluence conjured up by the Rolls-Royce is undercut by the building behind it, a hotel falling helplessly into ruin.

Ripplewood closed the Phoenix Sea-Side Hall in December 2001, giving nature ample time to go to work. Around the back, mossy pipes created lovely abstracts and a bicycle turned into a trellis.  

 

Frogs plopped into the pool on my approach and paint blistered painfully in the men’s washroom.

Bereft of the consolations of the hyperreal, holidaymakers now are forced to deal with the inconveniences of the real. Down by the sea, a lifeguard hosed down a rubber ring while a lady with parasol stepped out of a 19th century watercolor of the beach at Deauville.

Ripplewood CEO Tim Collins may be ruing the day he struck the Seagaia deal: it took until the year to March 2007 to turn an operating profit and until the year to March 2010 to turn the bottom line black, with Seagaia reporting net profit of a measly Y500mn ($6mn) on sales of Y11.2bn ($135mn), down 8.9% from the previous year due to an aggressive discounting campaign. 

The strategy, fraught with geopolitical risk, is to lure visitors from the Sinosphere, above all China. It’s hard to see what the appeal might be, though: while the Seagaia Sheraton is one of seven Sheratons in Japan, with no more planned, there are already 29 in China, many in resorts, and there will be 55 by the end of 2013. Why pay the premium to venture overseas only to struggle with a strange tongue and funny foreign food? 

The one thing that might have saved Seagaia is a casino, but debate on casino legalization has been dragging on for decades with no end in sight, stymied by the vested interests of the pachinko industry and the legislators in their pockets. My guess is that Seagaia will stagger on for a decade or two and that centuries hence, a hunter in pursuit of deer amid the pines will stumble on some fragments huge, and pause to wonder:

“What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.”

Kushiro: Everyone knows this is nowhere

The big drive east took me across the northern fringes of the Hidaka mountain range, first through Mukawa (1980 population 14,591, estimated 2009 population 9,852, projected 2035 population 6,619), a new town created in 2006, famous for—if anything—shishamo smelt and a proving ground for Isuzu trucks, and then very briefly through the village of Shimukappu (1990 population 2,721, estimated 2009 population 1,239, implausible projected 2035 population 1,335), one of the coldest places in Japan, logging -35.8c in January 2001, which boomed in the 1980s as a ski-resort, the company behind the resort finally going bust in 1998 with debts of ¥106.1bn.

The drive through Hidaka (1980 population 18,875, estimated 2009 population 14,001, projected 2035 population 8,981) and Shimizu (1980 population 13,352, estimated 2009 population 10,362, projected 2035 population 6,933) across the 1,023m Nissho Pass and down into the Obihiro basin was fabulous, although I was nearly outrun by a humble first-generation Toyota Raum, over which I had a 150hp advantage.

I skirted through the Obihiro dormitory town of Memuro (1980 population 16,580, estimated 2009 population 19,353, projected 2035 population 17,147), the 1947 birthplace of gateball, Japan’s very own version of croquet and much loved by seniors across the nation, although by all accounts its inventor, Eiji Suzuki, intended it as a game for children to keep them out of trouble in the lean post-war years.

It was then into Obihiro (1980 population 153,861, estimated 2009 population 168,608, projected 2035 population 133,894) proper, which feels like the least Japanese of cities, with its broad boulevards, huge John Deere and New Holland tractor outlets, massive farms (on average ten times bigger than the Japanese norm), wheat fields, potatoes, beet, and confectionary makers, and then out of the city on the southeast, through another dormitory town, Makubetsu (1980 population 22,390, estimated 2009 population 27,378, projected 2035 population 23,734), where another only-in-Japan game, park golf, was invented. Let’s park golf!

Leaving the Obihiro sprawl behind, I made a run for the coast through the cattle country of Toyokoro (1980 population 5,779, estimated 2009 population 3,672, projected 2035 population 1,873) and Urahoro (1980 population 9,693, estimated 2009 population 5,784, projected 2035 population 2,721). Urahoro was once on the edge of the Kushiro coalfield but it lost its eponymous mine as early as 1954 and now feels like any other sleepy Hokkaido seaside town on its uppers.

I stopped for lunch in the adjoining town of Onbetsu, which became part of Kushiro in 2005 in the great Heisei municipal merger boom of the middle of this decade, although Shiranuka, the town that lies between it and Kushiro, did not, so it is now administratively an odd little exclave—think Kaliningrad. Lunch was at a randomly chosen soba joint called Mikaku, with a perfectly preserved interior from the 1970s.

The chicken in the “chicken and egg” soba was so tough I swore that it had seen active service in the First World War. I was of course the only customer (well, it was gone 2pm).

In the Shoro district of Shiranuka (1980 population 14,514, estimated 2009 population 9,868, projected 2035 population 5,336), I fell deeply in love with Restaurant Moonlight.

Was there just a trace of Islamic influence in the arches and the arabesques of the restaurant’s name? I thought so. The restaurant specializes in Japan’s cuisine least familiar to outsiders, yoshoku, Japanese reinterpretations of Western dishes that date back more than a century, including Japan’s national dish, curry rice.

Shiranuka was once another small Kushiro coalfield mining town; the population peaked at 22,737 in 1967 and all the mines were gone by 1970.

I motored past the paper factories and chemical plants on the outskirts and into the center of Kushiro (1980 population 227,234, estimated 2009 population 186,962, projected 2035 population 118,448).

In finance, people talk about districts or countries being “overbanked”, having too many bank branches or competing banks, and in Japan, the structure of the word has been mimicked in a marvelous bit of made-up English, “overstore”, applied to the retail industry. I made up my own word to describe Kushiro: it was overbedded.

There was a chill in the air as I parked up in front of the centrally located ANA Hotel. Even in high summer, the mercury in Kushiro struggles to make it beyond the high teens. Inside, I enquired about the cost of a single; just over Y13,000 ($150, GBP90). I balked and turned to walk away; while I wasn’t on a particularly tight budget, for the pleasure I was likely to derive from the room, anything over a Y10,000 seemed superfluous. “How about Y10,000?” the receptionist said, addressing my back.

For a moment I felt as if I was in some Moroccan souk; this is Japan, noone haggles. They must be absolutely desperate, I thought to myself. I declined, saying that I would check out a couple of nearby places. There wasn’t going to be any problem finding room at the inn that night. At the Prince Hotel, the headline figure was Y9,500. I hummed and hawed; might as well go back to the ANA. The receptionist could see I was hesitating. “But we have a special Limited Plan for Y8,500”. What the limits were he didn’t care to explain. I checked in.

There are some 20 hotels of varying size in downtown Kushiro; the Prince alone has 400 rooms and the ANA 190. Some of the less prestigious but still respectable business hotels around the station would set you back as little as Y3,000 ($35, GBP21) a night for a double. At the exchange rates prevailing 18 months ago, that would have been $25 and GBP12.50 or thereabouts. With prices at the bottom end already at Motel 6 rates and Kushiro’s population spiraling down, its hotels’ collective future does not look pretty.

Kushiro’s showpiece attractions are the retail and restaurant complex Fishermen’s Wharf MOO, which stands for Marine Our Oasis, and an adjacent steel and glass indoor garden called EGG; I never discovered what EGG stood for, but maybe it was Extremely Great Garden. Perhaps they could be creatively renamed CLUCK and COWPAT, I’m sure noone would notice the difference.

There are no prizes, none at all, for guessing when they opened (1989). Designed as primarily a retail facility, MOO is grossly underused; much of the fourth floor of its five is given over to the drawings and scribblings of Kushiro elementary schoolers. On the second floor is a photo exhibition of Kushiro’s tourist highlights, with much self-referential space allotted to MOO itself. Some functionary—or a committee of them—had determined Kushiro’s “sloping roads” were worthy of exploration.

The burghers of Kushiro were also excited to share their civic pride in the magnificence of their flower clock and roundabout with the world.

Japan is almost wholly devoid of roundabouts. The caption to the photo reads:

When you cross the Nukimai Bridge on the Kita Oodori, you come to a roundabout with six projecting spokes and no traffic signals. Apart from the one in Asahikawa, this is probably the only other roundabout on Hokkaido.

We often hear from women and people that have been transferred here on work that they don’t want to drive through the roundabout, but the fact is that for all the six spokes and the lack of traffic lights, the flow of vehicles is smooth and there are few accidents. If you’ve come to Kushiro by car, why not give yourself a little thrill and experience the roundabout for yourself?

That was enough for me: I set off immediately across the bridge in search of the flower clock and roundabout.

Bagged in a single shot! Two of Kushiro’s prime tourist attractions.

I wandered down the other side of the Kushiro river, as twilight folded in, lured by the false promise of a brewery I had spotted from the other side.

The Hokkaido Shimbun reports that the building was originally erected in around 1960 as an ice-packing plant and taken over by Kushiro Harbor Beer in 1997 until it went under in 2007. Various plans are afoot to refurbish it but they’ve already been delayed and I have to doubt they’ll come to much. On the doors of the brewery were signs indicating that a guerilla nightclub, Let’s Groove, would be holding a Sunday evening party a little later, and indeed there was a hubbub of cars pulling up, speakers being unloaded, and urgent whispered advice being exchanged.

I returned a couple of hours later to find the party in its fullest of swing. It had the air of a Japanese flavored student disco—there were makeshift stalls selling edamame soybeans in the pod, shishamo smelt, and beer at Y500 a can. My scrawled jottings, taken on the spot, capture some of the flavor.

- “It’s too good to be true, I can’t take my eyes off of you”

- execrable sound system/distortion

- James Brown, “Shake your groovy hips”

- preteen dancing with funkyman

- “That’s the way, uh huh, I like it”

- 50 people, mostly female

- veering toward middle-age

- dry ice!

- hardcore collective with a Kushiro dance stylee

- bar counter about 3ft by 3ft with six bottles of spirits and a beer keg

- “Happy birthday to ya!”

- slender goth queen and hip-hop boy with headband, makes his hair look like a shrub

- manic whistle ref man (50?)

Then the hip-hop DJ took his slot; I wasn’t too sure about the wig.

I was swaying alone to the music, moderately drunk, when a 21-year old kid appeared by my side. Shin was from Kitami in the north and studying business at college in Kushiro. Not a great academic leap forward, I couldn’t help feeling.

“Do you like hip-hop?” he asked. “Not really”, I said, “but I like you”, and from this point on the evening must be mosaicked out.

******************

Kushiro’s prime lure is located north of the city itself: the 20,000 hectare Kushiro Shitsugen National Park. A tract of almost undisturbed marsh most celebrated for the winter gathering of Red-crowned Cranes, the second-most endangered crane in the world, the park was the first in Japan to be accorded Ramsar site status under the Ramsar Convention wetland conservation treaty and is the largest surviving wetland in the country.

At the Onnenai visitor center, a lattice of boardwalks lace out across the tussocks of sedge.

While the winter crane displays draw the crowds, the marshes are rewarding at any time of year. Ayame Blood Irises were in full bloom when I was there.

The boardwalking was heavenly: buntings and warblers chorused from the reeds, dragonflies and damselflies of every hue patrolled the bogs, and shady alder stands were alive with Siberian Rubythroats.

The visitor center is located in the village of Tsurui (1980 population 2,638, estimated 2009 population 2,571, projected 2035 population 2,303), whose name means “where the cranes are” and whose population is stable because of its proximity to Kushiro airport and the recent development of a housing estate for wealthy refugees from the city. Average annual farm household income, mostly from dairy farms, is apparently the highest in Japan.

From Tsurui I toured the backroads north of the wetlands, flushing snipe from the reeds as the road turned to dirt. We eventually converged with the Kottaro river. I had to take a photo—this was the first free-flowing river, untrammeled by concrete banks, unfettered by dams, unimpeded by weirs, that I had ever seen in Japan.

I realized that I was slowly running out of fuel but there was nothing to do but press on. I crossed the border into the undulating dairy country of Shibecha (1980 population 12,297, estimated 2009 population 8,540, projected 2035 population 5,809), which is gradually emptying out as farms get larger, and began to hypermile, coasting downhill and as far uphill as I could manage, changing up at 1,500rpm, and trying to keep to around 55kmh. With the roads virtually empty, it was idiosyncratic adrenal fun.

I rejoined a trunk road soon after entering Akkeshi (1980 population 15,940, estimated 2009 population 10,993, projected 2035 population 7,004), a place of oysters and dairies, where according to the town’s history section on its Wikipage, nothing of note has happened since 1955. The car was by now running on air and I have never been as glad to see a gas station as I was in the Akkeshi district of Ohoro.

Akkeshi somehow still manages to support a pachinko parlor—I suspect there’s not much else to do of an evening in Akkeshi, if playing pachinko qualifies as doing anything at all—and its sign amused.

From Akkeshi I took the stunning but often fog-shrouded coastal road through forests of primeval birch and pine into Hamanaka (1980 population 9,243, estimated 2009 population 6,717, projected 2035 population 4,718) out to Cape Kiritappu.

The wind chill made the cape too bracing for this shorts-clad visitor to linger long, and I made my way back inland through flat wooded cattle pastures, a landscape that grew steadily bleaker as I approached the city of Nemuro, on Hokkaido’s easternmost reaches.